Special-education aid from U.S. lagging

California school districts increasingly are paying a greater share of special education costs as federal officials fail to make good on a pledge to pay more, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report released Thursday.

The 28-page primer on the status of special education programs could set the stage for statewide reform of the costly and federally mandated program for children with special needs, including changes in how it’s funded, how it’s monitored, and how or when students are identified with special needs.

About 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million students receive special-education services at a cost of about $8.6 billion per year.

On average, schools spend a total of $22,300 on each student with special needs, compared with $9,600 on mainstream students.

Local districts paid 39 percent of the costs to serve students in special education in 2011, up from 32 percent in 2004.

While local districts are required to help pay for those services, federal officials have long fallen short of covering the intended 40 percent as outlined in legislation, according to the state analyst.

Federal funding now covers less than 20 percent of special-education spending.

The report also offered a synopsis of how students with special needs perform academically. As is the case with mainstream students, test scores are up, but the majority of those in special-education programs are not proficient.

In addition, the report outlines how many districts are not held accountable for special-education test scores because their special-needs enrollment is too small to be considered numerically significant.

But added up, that means 88 percent of schools were not monitored or subject to sanctions based on the performance of special-needs students, according to the report’s author, Rachel Ehlers.

Overall, the report gives state officials, new school board members or parents a concise summary of how special education works, said San Francisco school board member Rachel Norton, who has a daughter with special needs.

“If the policymakers actually took the time to read this thing, they would have a much better understanding of the challenges and complexities of the program,” Norton said.

Norton, for example, sees room for improvement in how and when students are identified with special needs, which now results in a disproportionate number of African American males in special education.

It would also be nice to see more federal money to support local districts, she said.

California would get about $2 billion more each year if the federal government paid 40 percent of costs.

Year after year, Congress has failed to pass bills supporting that, Norton said.

“The feds should pay their fair share,” she said. “I’m kind of cynical about it ever happening. We just have to provide better services with the funding that we have because I just don’t see more federal money coming.”

To see the full Legislative Analyst’s Office report, go to www.lao.ca.gov.

Special-education aid from U.S. lagging – SFGate.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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