Monday, June 22, 2015


By Thomas Himes, Los Angeles Daily News |

Posted: 06/20/15, 4:50 PM PDT :: Students in Los Angeles Unified were more likely to be placed in costly special education programs than their peers statewide, according to Department of Education records.

LAUSD students were labeled as needing special education at a 12.7 percent higher rate than the statewide average, 13.3 percent more frequently than Los Angeles County’s average and at least 11 percent higher than each of the four other school districts that also made the list of California’s five largest, according to the most recently available state records for the 2013-14 school year.

LAUSD’s spending on special education was criticized in a recent report by the University of California, Berkeley, which found the district directed significant resources to special education students, while shortchanging students for whom the funds were intended.

“We know kids in middle-class communities tend to be identified at higher rates, because parents are well aware of the federal requirements,” UC Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller said. “The concern there is some of the funding is going to those kids who aren’t eligible for it.”

Students living in poverty, assigned to foster care or struggling to learn the English language were the intended recipients of increased state funding under a plan devised by Gov. Jerry Brown for the 2013-14 school year.

But LAUSD officials created an incentive to label more students special education when they made spending on the services a priority, Fuller said.

“The worry is that as more special ed money becomes available, schools start to identify more kids because there is an incentive to identify kids,” Fuller said.

This year, the number of special education students grew by 408, even though overall enrollment dropped by 7,143. At the same time, funding for special education also rose, as LAUSD plans to spend $90 million more on the services than it did in the 2013-14 school year.

While special education students still only account for 13.5 percent of all students enrolled, the district plans to spend nearly 23 percent of its general fund money ­— $1.59 billion of $7.14 billion — educating them, according to budget documents for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The school board votes on that budget Tuesday.

Special education students benefit from smaller class sizes, extra teachers, teaching assistants and other resources. The cost to educate each special education student is about $18,000 on average. The district, however, only receives about $10,000 per student to fund classes for all of its more than 500,000 pupils.

In the upcoming year, special education will cost every student enrolled in the district $1,966 worth of teachers and resources that a majority of the district’s students — 469,615 attending LAUSD on any given day — will never receive, according to district budget documents.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines questioned the use of special education not long after returning to the district’s top spot for a third tour in October. He raised some of those reservations again during a recent committee discussion on the budget and plans to cut a preschool program.

“We can see the hyperactive little Ray Cortines and see what needs to be done rather than referring that child to special ed,” Cortines said. “And I’m not saying children shouldn’t be referred, but in districts in America, issues when you have bright, excited young people, you tend to not deal with us; you tend to provide a simple solution that bans us.”

LAUSD’s head of special education, Sharon Howell, said she’s not sure whether more middle-class students are benefiting from special education than pupils from low-income families.

About 79 percent of special education students are also low income, Howell said. Districtwide, 80.4 percent of students came from low-income families.

Howell said the most prevalent cause of this year’s uptick in special education students was autism.

“Students identified with autism tend to be from more affluent neighborhoods, because they have access to medical care and all those other things,” Howell said. “They have a family doctor who refers them at 18 months.”

Caucasian students were disproportionately present in special education services, according to districtwide demographics. While Caucasian students only accounted for 9.3 percent of LAUSD’s student body, 10.6 percent were enrolled in special education.

And although autism landed 27.6 percent of Caucasian students in special education classrooms, the most frequent reason Caucasian students were assigned to the program, at 28.7 percent, was a “specific learning disability.”

The classification is used for students who have a disorder in psychological processes, including dyslexia, but do not suffer from mental or physical disabilities.

Even though the number of Caucasian students enrolled in the district as a whole fell by 2,470 students from 2011-12 to 2013-14, the number enrolled in special education remained constant at 8,735, according to state data.

Latino students, meanwhile, were slightly underrepresented in special education programs, making up 73 percent of special education students and accounting for 73.5 percent of total district enrollment.

But African-American students were most likely to be sent to special education. While only 9.1 percent of all LAUSD students were African-American, 12.3 percent of pupils in the special education program were.

This year, the state notified LAUSD it assigned a disproportionate number of African-American students to special education schools, where they were segregated from general education students.

Howell said she doesn’t know why African-Americans are more likely to be referred to those schools, even though the district has taken steps to review its processes.

“It’s sort of a national problem, unfortunately, that African-American students are disproportionately referred for and found eligible for special education,” Howell said.

Closing out his remarks at the committee meeting, Cortines said while he understands some children will forever require special education courses, he wants to see data that shows how many students are returned to general education.

“It should not be a life sentence,” Cortines said.

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