Thursday, May 21, 2009 | Ten local charter schools want to turn to an office more than 500 miles away in El Dorado County to help them educate children with disabilities using the schools' own staff and strategies, instead of paying San Diego Unified to help meet those needs.
If approved, it will be a groundbreaking step for the charters, which already enjoy freedom over hiring, policies and curriculum but have traditionally been bound to the district when educating kids with Down Syndrome, attention deficit disorder or other disabilities. Their hope is that turning away from the school district will empower them to manage their own special education programs and provide a less expensive, more effective alternative than paying skyrocketing fees to the school district.
Under school district control, special education "is a whole component of your program that you don't even own and operate," said Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. "That is completely antithetical to what the charter school movement is all about."
El Dorado plans to charge the schools much less than they were charged by San Diego Unified, but the charters will also become responsible for providing services and staffers that were previously outsourced to the school district, which had assigned special education staffers to the charter schools and ran the programs. Charter advocates say it has already worked at the High Tech High schools, which partner with an agency in San Bernardino County for special education. It is a classic tradeoff for charter schools — more autonomy for more responsibility — and it is loaded with both opportunities and risks.
"Now school districts and counties throughout the state can't hold them hostage — if that isn't too strong of a term — when they have an opportunity to look for other options," said Vicki Barber, El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools, whose office would oversee the charters' special education programs.
But the trend is worrisome to advocates who question how accountable the schools can be from afar, especially when charter schools are already criticized for serving fewer students with disabilities than other public schools. Some worry that sending the money directly to schools to spend on special education, instead of providing special education services for a blanket fee that is not related to actual costs, could incentivize charters to cut back on their services to save money.
"It's already a challenge," said Kathleen Edwards, an advocate for families of special education students. "And it will be even more challenging when the [agency] is so far away. Are they going to try to reduce the number of kids with disabilities they accept?"
Charter school officials locally who helped plan the change, Cindy Atlas and Tim Wolf, declined to discuss the plans because they have not been finalized. The switchover hinges on approval from the California Department of Education but gained traction earlier this month when the California Board of Education clarified that El Dorado could bring more charter schools under its umbrella, allowing seven more San Diego schools to enter. Three more schools were already slated to join El Dorado earlier this year, pending approval from the state.
Charter schools are publicly funded but run independently by their own boards, allowing them to make their own decisions on who to hire, what and how to teach, and how to spend their money. But that freedom has often stopped when it comes to children with disabilities. To help meet their needs, charters in San Diego have traditionally turned to the school district, which collects state and federal money for students with disabilities based on the total number of students enrolled. It uses that money to pay for speech therapists, specially trained teachers and other staffers that it assigns out to the charter schools, exporting San Diego Unified employees to the charters based on their enrollment and students' needs.
The practice sprung up out of both the law and necessity: California schools, including charters, must be part of a public organization that coordinates special education services. Those organizations, which can range from a single large school district or county office of education to a joint effort between smaller districts or offices, receive the state and federal money for special education and craft a plan, approved by the state, for using those funds to provide services to children with disabilities. Some of the organizations use the funding to provide staff and other classroom services, while others may pass along the dollars so that schools can furnish the services themselves.
Problems with Autonomy and Money
Banding together is especially important for smaller school districts and schools that could not shoulder the sometimes hefty costs of special education alone. But those marriages of convenience have sometimes soured for charter schools.
One problem is autonomy. Charter schools pick their own teachers and other employees, but they have less control over which special education staffers they borrow from San Diego Unified, who are evaluated by San Diego Unified, belong to a union in San Diego Unified, and may not share their school philosophy. That can be a problem at schools that expect staffers to work a longer day than at San Diego Unified or use a specific strategy for teaching. Barber said it can also become tricky when schools want to change the way they help special education students, such as opting for team teaching or assistants to help in the classroom.
"We didn't have a role in choosing staff. Parents were complaining that the teachers were temporary," replaced every few months, said Paula Cordeiro, board secretary at Keiller Leadership Academy and a University of San Diego education dean. The school considered joining the El Dorado organization but ultimately decided to stay with San Diego Unified for special education after the district started responding to its concerns and gave it a voice in which special education staffers were assigned to the school. "But a lot of the issues that were raised were taken care of."
Another problem is money. Because the government shells out less money for special education than schools actually spend on it, San Diego Unified has had to fork over a growing share of its own dollars for special education. Those costs have swelled annually, reaching about $75 million this year. It divides those costs by all the students in the school district, and then charges charter schools for their "fair share." That fee has escalated from $573 per student two years ago to an estimated $763 per student next school year, spurring complaints from charter schools that they are paying more every year to get the same services.
"It's like paying into an insurance pool — but there is only one insurance company in town," said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. "And with a monopoly, charter schools have tended to get overcharged."
Switching from San Diego Unified to the El Dorado County consortium would mean that charters will pay much less in direct fees for special education, though their actual costs will depend on what services they need to provide for their students. Instead of paying more than $700 per student and sending their government funds directly to San Diego Unified to fill their needs for special education employees and services, the charters will pay roughly $50 a student to the El Dorado agency for oversight and guidance and get most of the state and federal dollars directly to provide the services themselves.
For schools, the changeover is roughly akin to getting cash to go to the grocery store and plan a feast instead of paying a restaurant to host a prix fixe dinner, no matter what their guests eat. Charters will get to decide how they use the government money instead of having the decisions made for them. They will pay less up front and have more control, but they are still responsible for feeding everybody at the table, and if someone gets food poisoning, they are at fault.
"The drawback is that they have to hire their own staff to service those students," said Larry Tamayo, operating officer for the San Diego office of ExED, which helps charter schools manage their business functions. "And if there is an incident, it's on them."
San Diego Unified estimated last August that it would lose more than $1.3 million in funding if 15 charter schools turned elsewhere for special education as originally proposed. Only 10 schools are now poised to split from the district.
Though the El Dorado office has less than a dozen staffers to oversee the schools, Senior Director Emi Johnson said it can monitor and guide the San Diego charters through videoconferences, occasional visits and a computerized system that allows Johnson to look at every individual plan created for a student with disabilities in the charters. It started overseeing charter schools in 2006, beginning with just 10 schools, and now expects to supervise 40 charters next year.
Wallace of the California Charter Schools Association pointed out that one of the organizations that is serving faraway charter schools had already been overseeing school districts hundreds of miles away, making it accustomed to oversight from afar. But others are worried by the vast distance between El Dorado and the charters that it oversees, especially amid persistent questions about whether charters are educating their fair share of students with disabilities.
"I really would like to see how they're going to provide consistent monitoring that ensures compliance with state and federal law," said Arun Ramanathan, who oversees San Diego Unified's student services.
Charter schools in San Diego tend to serve fewer children with disabilities than schools run by the district, though the percentages vary dramatically from school to school. The problem tends to be more acute at charters that were started anew, rather than being converted into charters from existing public schools. Gompers Charter Middle School, for instance, converted from an ordinary school several years ago and counts 17 percent of its students in special education programs, higher than the San Diego Unified average of 12 percent, according to San Diego Unified data gathered last August.
But an outside consultant found that the average percentage of special education students at charters was 6.8 percent overall and only 4.1 percent at startup schools, which were also unlikely to enroll students with severe disabilities such as mental retardation. The reasons are unclear. Eileen Ahearn, project director of the National Association of State Director of Special Education, said that there is no solid research on the topic, though theories range from special education parents being less likely to seek out alternatives to their public school to charters subtly pushing students with disabilities away, a phenomenon known as "counseling out" that is not unique to charter schools and has also been alleged at public schools run by districts.
"One principal tells me all the time, 'Wouldn't your son be better off in another school? One that can provide him with better services?'" said Patricia Rogers, a parent who has sued both the High Tech system and San Diego Unified over special education issues. "They're inviting you to leave."
Wallace said that the switch could actually boost the numbers of students with disabilities at charter schools because charters may be able to provide better services when they run them themselves, instead of depending on school districts to do so. And he countered the idea that sending money straight to the schools would lead them to cut services instead of making them more efficient.
"There are a number of safeguards in place," he said, mentioning legal requirements on schools to keep their services for students with disabilities intact from year to year. "There is no way to cut costs that would fundamentally prevent special education students from getting the services that they are entitled to under the law."
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