Comprehensive special education report is a powerful resource for board members

Special education plays a critical role as schools strive to increase equity and improve outcomes for California’s 6.2 million public school students. To help guide this work, CSBA recently released The Landscape of Special Education in California: A Primer for Board Members, available at The report provides an extensive look at the state’s special education system, including its laws, structures and best practices.

Q: California continues to struggle to meet the needs of many of its students with disabilities, as evidenced by 2018 California School Dashboard results. How can CSBA’s new report assist local educational agencies in making sure the issue is front and center?

A: Our new report was designed to provide an overview of the key facets of special education that board members should understand so that they can make informed decisions and better serve students with disabilities. For those that would like more information about specific areas, we have provided a set of links and resources, organized by content area. As we do with all our research and policy briefs, we’ve also provided a series of questions that board members might ask of their superintendent and other district staff.

Q: What does the latest research tell us about the number of students with disabilities in California and the severity of those disabilities?

A: California’s public school system serves almost 775,000 students with disabilities from birth through age 21, accounting for a little over one in 10 students. The number of students identified for special education services increased by almost 100,000 over the past decade. During this same time frame, the number and percentage of students identified as having “other health impairments” or autism more than doubled. Many of the disabilities that are being identified now require more intensive supports.

Q: With a growing population and rising special education costs, what are some ways that governance teams can better serve these students? Are there any strong examples of best practices across the state?

A: I’d recommend that board members look at how they invest in professional learning and collaboration time. One of the main reasons special education teachers cite for leaving the profession is inadequate professional development. Given that general education teachers provide the bulk of instruction for students with disabilities, they should also participate in professional development and be given time to collaborate with special education teachers and classified support providers. Topics include Universal Design for Learning and implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Support. Many districts find that investing in training to help educators and administrators develop high-quality Individualized Education Programs improves the educational experiences of students and partnerships with their families, and even can reduce the amount of litigation.

Our report also has a section on best practices, including the value of student-centered planning and early intervention.

Q: Is there any financial relief in sight as special education costs continue to rise for districts across the state?

A: CSBA is advocating for additional funding for special education.

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was first passed, the intent was for the federal government to provide states with 40 percent of the excess costs of providing special education and related services to students with disabilities. However, the federal government has never come close to meeting that threshold. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, only 9 percent of special education funding came from federal funding in 2014–15. The state provides 31 percent of special education funding, and that means local educational agencies provide 60 percent of excess costs. One unfortunate consequence is that, in a system that is chronically underfunded, this can make it tempting to view special education as “encroaching” on general education funds. Rather than pitting the needs and rights of students against one another, our focus should be on requiring state and federal leaders to provide the funding districts and counties need to provide all students with a high-quality education.

Q: How has the public education system (both the federal and state level) evolved in the last few decades as it aims to better serve students with disabilities?

A: Fortunately, there’s been increased attention to ensuring students with disabilities have as much access to the general education program as their IEP team decides is appropriate for meeting children’s needs. By 2014, almost two-thirds of U.S. students with disabilities were spending 80 percent or more of their day in general education classrooms.

In California, the 2015 Statewide Special Education Task Force found that special education and general education were largely operating in silos, rather than a coherent system. As a result, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has made a series of changes to teacher preparation for general education and special education teachers alike. This is really important, since general education teachers actually provide the bulk of instruction for students with disabilities.

As California focuses on the statewide System of Support, the state just launched several Special Education Local Plan Area Resource Leads, aimed at building the capacity of SELPAs in systems improvement and special education content like reducing disproportionality, serving students with disabilities who are also English learners and more.