Special Education is complicated and needs dedicated oversight at the local level

California was an early pioneer in giving disabled people rights and access to education. But things have drifted since those early days in the 1970s. Now, we are lagging in many areas for empowering “The Forgotten Fifth” – the 20 percent of our community members living with disabilities.

California has the most segregated education system for kids with disabilities in the US – 20.7 percent of California’s disabled kids are in highly segregated classrooms compared to the national average of 13.4 percent*.

This is not just a couple of students, this is 11.3 percent of our students – more than 703,000 kids, not including preschool – and even those who are included in general education classes are performing vastly below their peers (95 points below standard – probably 3 years behind in English Language Arts… and Math is even worse – 125 points below standard, probably close to 4 years behind)***.

And segregation has real consequences. According to the National Council on Disability, kids in segregated classes get 50% fewer minutes of academic instruction each day**.

Start behind, end further behind

Ramps help everyone

Ramps on our street corners help people with disabilities, but, as we’ve all found, they help senior citizens with mobility issues, you and me with our groceries, and skateboarders and bicyclists. Better education for disabled students can benefit all students.

Because all teachers are special education teachers. Even as things are today in California, on average, every classroom has at least one student with disabilities.

Every teacher is a special education teacher… if we made that a reality, all our teachers would have a bigger toolkit to help all students.

It does work – There are other school districts and states which have switched over to structured literacy programs to help kids with dyslexia (up to 20 percent of kids according to some studies). Instead of just using the program for students with dyslexia, they used the program for everyone****.

… and found that ALL students did better.

Now, inclusive education for students with disabilities is not going to magically close our performance gap. Our school district faces real, complex challenges.

Becoming a leader

Make no mistake, changing our culture and relationship with disability is going to take time and attention. There is no magic bullet. School boards rarely take the time to focus on the complexity of these issues. In my local school district, the first and ONLY presentation on special education for the 2018-19 school year happened the night after the last day of school on 20 June 201915 minutes and 12 high level slides 2.5 hours after the meeting started…. they didn’t even mention the budget (and special education is a regular budget target at other meetings).

This in spite of numerous public comments on a wide range of serious issues throughout the year including school safety, bullying in special education classrooms, facility issues, and staffing problems.

There are lots of challenges for any public school district, but special education and disabled students need each District’s attention – =school boards and professional staff must be accountable to the public that they serve.

We need a dedicated group of parents, teachers, staff, community members, and subject matter experts to work out how to transform every District and ensure they deliver a quality education for all students.

We need a true District Advisory Committee for Special Education and Disability Issues for every school district to ensure accountability and better educational outcomes for EVERY student.

* Page 182 of “40th Annual Report to Congress of the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2018”. Highly segregated classes are those where students spend less than 40 percent of their time with their general education peers. The federal report is not very precise, it is often the case that students spend NO time with their peers, go on NO field trips, and have an educational curriculum with very low expectations.

** Page 39 of “The IDEA Series: Segregation of Students with Disabilities, National Council on Disability, 7 February 2018”

*** California School Dashboard

**** “3 ways educators nationwide are working to disrupt dyslexia”