Santa Barbara County 1998-99 Grand Jury Report

Special Education in
Santa Barbara County Schools

Released June 10, 1999

 

INTRODUCTION

The Grand Jury received a series of complaints about lack of effectiveness of the special education program in Santa Barbara County schools. The concerns focused on the availability of services for students with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and other learning disabilities and on school compliance with federal and state requirements.

OBJECTIVE

To determine the compliance of the Santa Barbara County schools with state and federal regulations for special education and the accessibility of those programs.

PROCEDURE

The investigation included interviews with parents, teachers, students, administrators of several Santa Barbara school districts and representatives of the Santa Barbara County Education Office and the Special Education Local Plan Area Plan (SELPA). Members of special education advocacy groups as well as faculty of the University of California were consulted.

The committee reviewed federal and state laws and regulations relating to special education, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Local regulations and reports reviewed included the Special Education Local Plan Area guidelines, the Special Education Parents Handbook published by the Santa Barbara County SELPA and the Compliance Report for Santa Barbara County Schools, published by the California Department of Education.

OBSERVATIONS

Federal Mandate

The federal government expanded programs for children with learning disabilities in 1997 with Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the core special education statute for children with disabilities and was designed to improve the way parents, teachers, schools and states work together to provide a better education.

IDEA defines a learning disability as a "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations."

The federal IDEA program assists states in the education of students with disabilities with a detailed service mandate. It requires that all public-school children who need special education and related services receive a free, appropriate public education regardless of the level or severity of their disability. It requires that states make sure that these students receive an individualized education program (IEP) based on their unique needs in the least restrictive environment possible. Other features of the legislation include empowering teachers and schools to address discipline problems and encouraging mediation instead of costly litigation as a means of settling IDEA disputes.

State Requirements and
Responsibilities

In California, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education have the responsibility to ensure that federal mandates are implemented. The State Board of Education adopts rules and regulations for the efficient administration of local area plans. The state board approves the local area plans as submitted by the county and school districts.

Two new and important pieces of legislation chaptered into law in October 1997 affect special education in California schools:

In response to an inquiry by this Grand Jury, the California Secretary of Education wrote, "The federal governmentís fiscal support for the program pales in comparison to its program control. The state and local school districts provide more than eighty-five percent of the funds and the federal dollars represent the balance. To the extent that the stateís categorical financial support for special education, in combination with the meager federal funds, do not meet the total program funding needs, a school district or county office must redirect funds from their general programs to be in compliance with federal rules and regulations. The lack of sufficient funds from the federal government has been a contentious issue since 1975."

In addition to establishing educational standards, the stateís Board of Education can evaluate local compliance and help resolve disagreements. In 1998 a number of parents with students having special needs requested a review by the stateís Board of Education Complaints Management and Mediation Unit. The Grand Jury followed up on this audit and received the results, published in August 1998, which showed the schools to be in minimum compliance with state regulation codes for special education. Minor administrative infractions were noted in the transfer of records as some students progress through the school system. This important report did not recommend changes to the program, but comment was offered to maintain discipline in the student recordkeeping process.

Santa Barbara Local Plan

In Santa Barbara County the local plan for individuals with exceptional needs is administered by a state-mandated Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA). SELPA implements the local plan including:

SELPA is a separately funded state entity. SELPA, together with the county's Office of Education and 23 school districts form a joint powers agency (JPA). The JPA board of governors is comprised of eight voting members: the County Superintendent of Schools, three school-district representatives from the north county and four school-district representatives from the south county.

Joint powers agency meetings must be open to the public and comply with the Brown Act and the Education Code.

County Education Office

The Santa Barbara County Education Office is the special education provider of last resort. School districts with fewer than 900 students receive direct services from the county. There are ten districts with their own internal special-needs programs, and thirteen school districts depend on the County Education Office for staff, curriculum and maintenance of individual education programs (IEPs). Funding for this effort comes from the individual school districts.

County Education Office services achieve economies of scale by sharing technical know-how, resources and staff over several districts. Services include identification, referral, assessment, instructional planning and implementation of an individual program. As a contributor to and leader of SELPA, the county agency supports analysis, allocation and reporting of funds. The County Education Office coordinates identification procedures with school sites for referral of pupils with needs that cannot be met through modification of the regular instructional format.

Individual School Districts

The responsibility for implementing and funding the mandates of the federal government and the regulations imposed by the state ultimately rests with local school districts. Funding for these mandates must come from other district programs; at the same time special district users criticize the district over minimal legal compliance.

In the Santa Barbara School District approximately 9% of the 16,000 students are eligible for special education programs. It was reported that the district currently spends as much as 50% more than is allocated by the state for special education. Local school boards report that the funding formulas offered by the state do not allow complete services to be provided at every school.

Federal mandates guarantee student access to a free education and fundamental educational training to achieve basic life and vocational skills. However, the wording of the legislation leads to exaggerated expectations by parents and sometimes by the teaching staff. The interpretation of "guarantee" often goes beyond the intent of the mandate and, when combined with the legislationís right to appeal judgments and determinations of the schools, gives rise to extensive legal actions. The ensuing litigation is time-consuming, costly and requires excessive staff resources. With limited funding and too few teaching specialists, perfect special education programs are not achievable for every student.

A parentsí manual is available from the schools to describe the process of identification and referral, assessment, instructional planning, implementation and progress review. A need exists for a broader parent-education outreach program that would improve parental understanding of the limitations of the program and challenges faced by special education programs.

It was reported that local school district boards are reluctant to make greater commitments without an identified funding stream to cover their efforts. The result is a minimally compliant program without hope of further progress. The Grand Juryís visits to schools revealed needs for better teaching materials and resources. In spite of limited resources, special education teachers have been creative and innovative in implementing their programs.

Early Identification

The Grand Jury received several complaints that older students with special needs present unique problems for special education programs. Individuals with exceptional needs (marginal skills) who are not identified early in the developmental cycle are often branded as behavior problems. Subsequently, students with learning disabilities are placed in special community schools normally reserved for delinquent youth, such as El Puente, or placed in independent study programs outside the normal school system. This practice often leaves both students and parents unsupported and unable to reconnect to a mainstream education and skill-preparation process. Parents believe this to be inequitable and ineffective. Older students with learning disabilities often become isolated from mainstream channels of education.

Early identification of students with learning disabilities is not easy when the childís problems are not extensive. Students omitted from the referral process often exhibit behavior problems. It is only when learning difficulties are so pervasive or severe that they markedly interfere with learning or day-to-day living that a learning disability is suspected.

Measurements and Outcomes

Current special education planning is done on an aggregate rather than individual basis. Categorical funding requires students be grouped by disability and programs are developed to address group needs. In a report to the U.S. Congress in late 1997, an academic board indicated a need for tracking programs on an individual level. If the system does not track dollars spent to the individual student, the effectiveness of the program is uncertain and accountability is poor. If the effectiveness of a program cannot be measured, no corrective measures will be forthcoming, especially in the area of funding. Collective program design does not support the notion of individual student achievement measured by programs developed for individual students based on unique needs.

Enlightened research is leaning toward testing for achievement. This allows success for the individual and ensures maximizing the studentís potential.

The current direction in special education is toward specialized assessment or measuring the effectiveness of the processes. Typical special education programs in Santa Barbara County are data poor. Thus, the needed systemic data is not available for evaluation.

To provide improved services to special education students, a strategic plan would be helpful. In response to a Grand Jury request, one district provided the following strategic plan elements:

CONCLUSION

Both the federal government and the State of California enacted powerful legislation in the last few years to enhance the education of special-needs students. The legislation is not supported by adequate federal and state funding (see Attachment A). SELPA (and the SELPA JPA) is responsible for compliance with state regulations and federal mandates. The school districts must attempt to meet the mandates; however, they do not have sufficient funds to do so. Individual school districts are left in a difficult position and receive much public scrutiny.

Parents of special-needs students are dissatisfied with the identification and referral process for younger students. Parents also complain about the limited opportunity for older students to enter the special-needs sphere of influence and complete their education. In addition, the appeal process for parents is complicated and cumbersome and there is no satisfactory educational outreach program that would improve parental understanding of the limitations and challenges faced by special education programs.

The Grand Jury concluded that schools often lack tailored instructional materials to satisfy the many varied special education elements. Teachers use the best available materials, which may not be appropriate for learning-disabled students. Schools meet state mandates, but to do so allocate substantially more for special education than the minimum government allotments. This encroachment into the schoolsí general funds diverts resources from other student programs yet only provides minimal compliance with state and federal mandates.

The public is not aware of the numbers of students requiring special education, nor do they appreciate the funding dilemma presented to the local school districts. Until recently, federal and state elected officials havenít supported increased funding for special education.

Santa Barbara County has a rich supply of professional organizations and childcare providers. However, special-needs students do not always receive assessment and intervention utilizing the combined expertise of available resources. The county organizations involved in related activities are Mental Health, Office of Education, Department of Social Services, Office of the District Attorney and the Probation Department. These agencies currently participate in a child development consortium. It would be beneficial if SELPA could adapt this model to improve special education services and programs. This combination of agencies and services would assure professional specialty attention for a continuum of treatment throughout the life cycle of a special needs student.

COMMENDATION

Special education teachers in the Santa Barbara County schools are dedicated, creative and effective educators. The school districts achieve a great deal in spite of restricted funding.

FINDINGS AND
RECOMMENDATIONS

Finding #1:

Improvements could be made in the delivery of special education services in the county, regardless of funding shortfalls.

Recommendation #1:

The Special Education Local Area Plan (SELPA) Joint Powers Agency should:

  1. Improve assessment and intervention to enhance compliance above the minimum
  2. Redesign the appeal process to make it understandable and usable
  3. Require a strategic-improvement plan from each district program
  4. Form a consortium for special education to improve the delivery of services

AFFECTED AGENCIES

SELPA/JPA