01/05/2011 -- Los Angeles Unified officials unanimously approved a plan Tuesday that allows charter school operators for the first time to control their special education funding and run their programs, free of district rules and mandates.
Charter schools have asked to control their special education funding for years, as they do for their general student population. But LAUSD officials had advised against it, citing concern over the low rates of severely disabled students served by local charter schools.
Under the new plan, charter operators will be able to control their programs with only administrative oversight from LAUSD, which charter advocates assure will allow more of the alternative schools to serve a broader range of students.
"Today marks a victory for both charter schools and the district, as we strive toward improving services to special education students and their families," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association.
LAUSD already houses more charter schools – 194 – than any other district in the country, and the alternative schools are expected to continue expanding in the area.
"I believe this plan will allow us to provide services to all children and families in need, without being territorial," said board member Yolie Flores.
The new plan comes a year after state officials approved new rules that allow charter operators to sever ties with large districts like LAUSD and run special education programs independently.
Already, more than 90 charter schools serving some 30,000 local students have asked to break away from LAUSD – representing a loss of more than $2 million for the cash-strapped district.
LAUSD officials voiced their opposition to these new rules last year, and Sharyn Howell, LAUSD's executive director of special education, said since then her office began to work with local charter leaders to find a new way to run special education services between the district and charter schools.
Under the new plan, the district will be able to retain some special education funding and also have some input in how services are provided to students, Howell said.
Charter school operators will have two options. Those who want to run all of their special education programs independently will still give LAUSD about 20 percent of their state and federal funding, to cover administrative oversight – which amounts to about $80 per student.
Charter schools can also continue to turn over all of their state and federal funding, if they want to have LAUSD provide all special education services at their campus.
"We are hoping if charters have more autonomy they will be able to show us that they can serve all students. Their services may not look exactly the same as the district's services but they will have to follow all state and federal mandates," Howell said.
"We also hope this will be a breeding ground for best practices. ... Maybe some charter school leaders will be able to show us more innovative and cost-effective ways of providing services."
Howell also said charter schools would be expected to follow the rules laid out by the Modified Consent Decree, placed on the district for its failure to adhere to all federal special education mandates.
A report by the Office of the Independent Monitor, set up to oversee the consent decree, in summer 2009 found that charters traditionally cherry-pick special education students with less severe disabilities and leave LAUSD with more severely disabled students who are more expensive to teach.
The new plan will set aside some funding to explore new ways to fund special education services to all charter schools, independent of LAUSD.
For example, a program to service blind students or emotionally disturbed students could be established to serve groups of students at several charter campuses.
"We expect that under this plan, after a few years, charter schools will more closely mirror the district," Howell said.
Long-time charter advocates also celebrated the new plan, which they described as a "watershed" moment because of tensions that have surrounded special education services and funding.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines also stressed that the plan would be a work in progress, and would be evaluated at least yearly, to ensure it was working for all students.
"This is truly a partnership that must be balanced correctly on behalf of our students," he said.