CA moves to formally merge general and special ed

CA moves to formally merge general and special ed

(Calif.) In what may prove a ground-breaking initiative to unite special education services with general class instruction, state officials are expanding the scope of a new accountability system to involve all students in California.

The state’s K-12 schools serve nearly 720,000 students with disabilities, a program that has traditionally operated separately from the rest of the education system.

Although federal law calls for SWDs to be kept among their peers as much as possible, school managers and state policy makers have typically siloed activities especially as they relate to student performance and testing, teacher training and overall administration.

Prompted by new federal goals that de-emphasize regulatory compliance in favor of student outcomes, the California State Board of Education is taking the additional step of merging special and general services in concert with the ideals of “whole child” education.

“For the first time, we have an opportunity to be part of a single system of education that offers the benefits of an integrated approach that will allow all the resources available to be harnessed in support of SWDs,” explained Chris Drouin, interim director of  Special Education at the California Department of Education.

Noting that as many as 70 percent of students enrolled in special education qualify for targeted state support defined in the Local Control Funding Formula, Drouin said it makes sense to unify performance and accountability requirements now.

“Most kids with IEPs (individualized education plans) are not just kids with IEPs,” he said. “They are low-income students, they are English learners and they are foster youth. The more we can integrate support for all students – the more the system is color blind and ability blind – the better we can provide support for what is needed to have college and career ready students.”

Based on research that shows children with disabilities perform better and have better outcomes when kept as much as possible in the regular classroom, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stresses equality and full-participation whenever possible. To ensure states and districts meet basic standards, federal regulations over the years have imposed a long list of compliance reports including inclusion rates.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education announced new rules that put academic performance on equal footing with regulatory compliance with respect to federal evaluations of programs for SWDs. Known as ‘results driven accountability,’ the regulations gave new import to student test scores and graduation rates.

That directive came as California was transitioning to the sweeping changes brought on by the LCFF – notably new authority of local school boards over spending decisions but also new requirements to include parents and community stakeholders in creating education budgets.

Special education students were excluded from the targeted funding that came with the LCFF – largely because federal and state sources were already supporting those services.

Drouin noted that during the development of the accountability element of the LCFF – the Local Control Accountability Plans – advocates for special education called for more integration.

“What we heard from a number of panels of special education folks was that if you as a state create another system that doesn’t align with IDEA, you are missing the boat,” he said.

About the same time a statewide task force on special education issued a major report calling for a number of reforms that need to be undertaken – one of the key recommendations was to fully merge special and general education.

To be clear, the performance of special education students on standardized tests has always been a part of both the California and federal system – but that’s where the accountability evaluations in the past have effectively ended. Today, the LCAPs require districts to report on 22 distinct indicators including graduation rates, attendance and facility status.

The new accountability system, driven by the LCAPs, will incorporate both general and special education within a far more robust set of measures.

Although there are no plans to include SWDs as a target group for LCFF funding, there is recognition of their representation within the three subgroups. That is, 21 percent of all English learners have IEPs; as many as 15 percent of all low-income students are in special education; and about a quarter of foster youth have been identified as having a disability.

Among the general education population, about 11 percent are in special education.

To actually accomplish the union of special and general education, state officials are using the ongoing process of building a new accountability system for schools and students. That update began in 2012 with passage of a bill that called for multiple measures of performance instead of just test scores.

With the LCFF and the LCAPs as well as California’s embrace of the Common Core State Standards and a new testing program, creating a new system for evaluating how well schools are doing took on added importance. As part of the chore, the state board has committed to establishing a single accountability system, which will include special education.

Earlier this month, the board approved a newly-required federal plan that details how California will better prepare special education students for college and careers. That plan formally pledges the state’s intent to merge special and general education for accountability purposes and thus, it is hoped, will generate more collaboration and teamwork among educators at the district and site level.

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