New LAO Report "Overview of Special Education in California"

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Explore:  Special Education

On January 3, 2013, the State's Legislative Analyst's Office ("LAO") issued a report entitled Overview of Special Education in California. The report provides a broad summary of special education.

Below is the Executive Summary of the report.  A link to the full report is at the bottom of this page.

LAO's Executive Summary

Special education is the “catch–all” term that encompasses the specialized services that schools provide for disabled students. This report provides a comprehensive review of special education—conveying information on applicable laws, affected students, services, funding, and student outcomes.

Public Schools Must Provide Special Support for Disabled Students. Federal law requires schools to provide “specially defined instruction, and related services, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” The law requires schools to provide disabled students with these special supports from age 3 until age 22, or until they graduate from high school, whichever happens first. These services are in addition to what a nondisabled student receives.

About One in Ten California Students Receives Special Education Services. About 686,000 students with disabilities (SWDs) receive special education services in California, comprising about 10 percent of the state’s public school enrollment. Specific learning disabilities—including dyslexia—are the most common diagnoses requiring special education services (affecting about 4 percent of all K–12 students), followed by speech and language impairments. While the overall prevalence of students with autism and chronic health problems still is relatively rare (each affecting 1 percent or less of all public school students), the number of students diagnosed with these disabilities has increased notably over the past decade.

Special Education Services Vary Based on Individual Student Needs. Federal law only requires schools to provide special education services to students with diagnosed disabilities that interfere with their educational attainment. To determine a student’s need and eligibility for special education, schools must conduct a formal evaluation process. If schools determine that general education programs cannot adequately meet a disabled student’s needs, they develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to define the additional services the school will provide. Each student’s IEP differs based on his or her particular disability and needs. Specialized academic instruction is the most common service that schools provide. This category includes any kind of specific practice that adapts the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to help SWDs access the general curriculum. Other commonly provided services include speech and language assistance and various types of therapies for physical and psychological needs that may be impeding a SWD’s educational attainment. Although federal law encourages schools to educate disabled students in mainstream settings, most (about three–quarters) of special education services are delivered in settings other than regular classrooms.

In General, the State Uses a Regional Structure to Organize Special Education. Because economies of scale often improve both programmatic outcomes and cost–effectiveness, special education funding and some services are administered regionally by 127 Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) rather than by the approximately 1,000 school districts in the state. Most SELPAs are collaborative consortia of nearby districts, county offices of education (COEs), and charter schools, although some large districts have formed their own independent SELPAs, and three SELPAs consist of only charter schools.

The Excess Costs Associated With Providing Special Education Services Are Supported by Federal, State, and Local Funds. Schools receive billions of dollars to provide a basic educational program—including teachers, instructional materials, academic support, and enrichment activities—for all students, including SWDs. The average annual costs of educating a SWD, however, are more than double those of a mainstream student—approximately $22,300 compared to $9,600. (It is important to note that most SWDs require less severe, less costly services, whereas some students require intensive interventions that cost notably more than $22,300 per year.) Schools receive categorical funds to cover a portion of these additional, or “excess costs,” associated with addressing students’ disabilities. Because federal and state special education funds typically are not sufficient to cover the costs of all IEP–required services, however, schools spend from their local unrestricted general funds to make up the difference. In 2010–11, special education expenditures totaled $8.6 billion. State special education categorical funds covered the largest share of these costs (43 percent), combined with spending from local general purpose funds (39 percent) and federal special education funds (18 percent). Over the past several years, a combination of increasing special education costs and relatively flat state and federal special education funding has resulted in local budgets covering an increasing share of these costs.

Special Education Funds Allocated to SELPAs Based on Overall Student Population, Not Number of Disabled Students. California relies primarily on a “census–based” funding methodology that allocates special education funds to SELPAs based on the total number of students attending, regardless of students’ disability status. This funding model implicitly assumes that SWDs—and associated special education costs—are relatively equally distributed among the general student population and across the state. The amount of per–pupil funding each SELPA receives varies based on historical factors. In 2011–12, the weighted statewide average per–pupil rate was $645 per student (including both state and federal funds). After receiving its allocation, each SELPA develops a local plan for how to allocate funds to the school districts and charter schools in its region based on how it has chosen to organize special education services for SWDs.

Mixed Academic Outcomes for Disabled Students. Some performance indicators suggest SWDs generally are performing well, whereas other indicators are less encouraging. For example, performance on standardized tests (including those specifically designed for SWDs) has improved over the past several years, but a majority of SWDs still fail to meet state and federal achievement expectations. As SWDs near the end of their time receiving special education services, data show that about 60 percent of SWDs graduate on time with a high school diploma and about two–thirds of SWDs are engaged productively after high school (with about half enrolled in an institute of higher education and 15 percent competitively employed within one year after high school).

The complete report, Overview of Special Education in California, is available in PDF or HTML from the LAO.