The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.

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On Thursday night, the Poway Unified school board will look at a report detailing how much the district has been spending from its general fund on special education and where it could save money.

In 2014-2015, Poway Unified’s general fund contribution to special education was 54 percent of total special education expenditures, according to the report. In 2015-2016, that number rose to 57 percent and was projected at 60 percent in 2016-17.

The Learning CurveThe state and federal government give funds to school districts intended solely to cover special education costs.

That includes teachers and other employee salaries who work with students with disabilities, services and resources for those students, transportation for students with disabilities and other expenditures to ensure districts are serving students with disabilities in accordance with federal and state laws that can range from due process costs or even tuition for schooling alternatives when a public school can’t meet their needs.


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Poway isn’t the only district where special education costs are going beyond what’s given to districts from the state and federal governments.

Last year, a San Diego Unified report found that the amount the district needed to kick into special education rose by more than $49 million between 2012 and 2016, because of reductions in federal and state funding and increased special education costs.

For the most part, special education costs are increasing across the state. State funds for special education are also inequitably distributed, so sometimes the districts with the highest needs are getting less money per student than districts with lower needs.

Christine Kuglen, the founder and the director of Innovations Academy, a K-8 charter school, put the issue on my radar.

“My main questions/concerns are about special education,” Kuglen wrote in an e-mail. “Special education funding is not nearly enough to even come close to covering the expenses.”

According to a budget analysis from the state Legislative Analyst Office, roughly 60 percent of special education funding actually comes from local contributions.

Of the 40 percent funded through state and federal sources, roughly 30 percent comes from the state and 10 percent comes from the federal government – though those percentages change slightly each year.

California is the only state in the country that uses an intermediate institution, called a Special Education Local Plan Area, to disperse funds to districts. There are 131 SELPAs in the state – six of which are in San Diego County. San Diego Unified and Poway Unified school districts are large enough that each has its own SELPA. There are other SELPAs covering the north coastal part of the county, north inland, South County and East County.

SELPAs receive the money dispersed from the state and then give it to districts within the SELPA. For SELPAs that encompass multiple school districts, the decisions are made by representatives from each district and a County Office of Education employee.

There are also four CHELPAs in the state, which are SELPAs for charter schools.

The largest chunk of state funding comes from AB 602, which passed in 1998.

In order to discourage districts from inflating the numbers of students with disabilities in order to get more funding, the funding formula uses overall student enrollment in districts to determine how much each will get. The formula also takes into account cost-of-living adjustments each year.

While the cost of living has increased, overall enrollment in public schools in California has been decreasing, meaning that the amount of special education funding going to localities has been growing slowly. Statewide, the number of students with disabilities has been increasing.

That’s a major reason for the funding disconnect.

Special education costs continue to grow. The largest cost is paying teachers and other personnel. But funding for special education hasn’t been increasing at the same rate as other school funding – leading schools to use increasing amounts of general fund money for special education.

There are other issues with the distribution of AB 602 funds.

“There are two issues,” said Ryan Anderson, a fiscal and policy analyst at the Legislative Analyst Office who focuses on education budget matters. “First is that funding isn’t equitable on a per-student basis. Second is that costs are not equal on a per-student basis.”

Per-student base-rate funding ranges from roughly $480 per student to $930 per student, said Anderson. And that number isn’t necessarily based on the size of the district or characteristics that are still relevant today, but rather on decades-old assumptions that were grandfathered into the funding formula in the ’90s.

The formula also doesn’t take into account that services for different disabilities have different costs. Districts that serve more students with severe disabilities have far higher expenses than ones providing services to higher-functioning students with disabilities. The current formula assumes the same cost for the district for every student, no matter his or her disability. That means districts with higher percentages of severely disabled students come up short.

According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, in 2014-2015, San Diego County was one of the regions in the state with a higher number of students with severe disabilities – meaning students with autism, cognitive impairment, deafness-blindness, emotional disturbances, multiple disabilities and traumatic brain injury. They made up roughly 3.2 to 4.2 percent of the student population.

“When I communicate this stuff generally, I usually emphasize that funding is very unequal,” Anderson said.

One bill making its way through the Legislature, AB 312 by Long Beach Assemblyman Chris O’Donnell would include funding for preschool special education, which the state currently doesn’t fund at all, and calls for the state to commit more financial resources to special education to balance out inequities.

Local Ed News

• John Collins, the former superintendent of Poway Unified School District, is facing five felony charges for allegedly misusing public money while he was superintendent. If Collins is convicted on all charges, he could face more than seven years in prison. To catch up on the Collins scandal, read some of Ashly McGlone’s previous reporting on how he tried to negotiate a raise for himself while negotiating his exit deal and why Poway Unified fired him.

NBC 7 found another interesting tidbit on Collins: Financial records show he used his district card at Disneyland.

• San Dieguito Union High School District had some problems this summer after parents of disabled students in an adult transition program found out their kids would be in portable classrooms instead of inside a newly renovated, state-of-the-art middle school campus.

• San Diego County schools need to draft comprehensive suicide policies to address suicide prevention, intervention and what to do if a student commits suicide in order to comply with a new state law. (KPBS)

• The superintendent of Vallecitos will be taking over as head of Bonsall Unified School District. (Union-Tribune)

In Other Ed News

• Betsy Devos’ Education Department has already closed more than 1,500 civil rights complaints – including dismissing 900 outright. That’s a much faster rate of dealing with complaints than her predecessor. (Politico)

• The generation born between 1995 and 2012 is shaped by smartphones and social media. They also face spiking rates of teen depression and suicide. A San Diego State professor looked at how smartphones may have led the post-Millennial generation to the brink of a mental-health crisis. (The Atlantic)

• A white city in Alabama wants to break off its predominantly black county school district. The effort is part of a trend that is reigniting the school segregation debate. (Wall Street Journal)

• When this Canadian elementary school had to close after funding cuts, a local ice cream shop stepped in and offered $2 million in Canadian dollars to keep children at their neighborhood school. (New York Times)

• States continue to struggle with what to do about their worst public schools. (Washington Post)

• The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has seen a surge in Title IX complaints against K-12 schools for wrongdoing in sexual assault cases similar to those targeted at colleges and universities. (the74 million)

• Cities are hoping mental health services in schools will help break the school-to-prison pipeline. (Politico)

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, The Learning Curve

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

    4 comments
    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    Tell me if I've got this right.  Funding is about $750 times the total number of students?  Spread over 3.5% of students.  So, $750/0.035 is about $21K plus the $10K spent on every student.  I have no idea is this is adequate but I'd appreciate it if the figures were given plainly rather than incommensurate relative values.  Not to pick on this article as this seems to be a trend in modern journalism. 

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    Not to say why the number of students with disabilities has been increasing is telling half of the story.

    EducatedMom
    EducatedMom subscribermember

    I looked at the WestEd report regarding Special Education in SDUSD, and if I read it correctly (pages 40-41), it indicates that SDUSD spent $192 million in general education funding above and beyond the $102 million the federal/state/local governments provided for Special Education services.  This means that general education funding provides 65% of the funding for Special Education services in SDUSD, much higher than Poway Unified's contribution.

    According to page 45 of the report, 29.7% of SDUSD's budget is allocated to Special Education goals, which is significantly higher compared to other school districts.  Dividing $295 million for approximately 14,800 special needs students gives an average of more than $19,000 annually in Special Education services per special needs student.  There is no question that Special Education is an underfunded mandate, but why are the costs so much higher for SDUSD? 

    Grammie
    Grammie subscribermember

    Are there any studies regarding the etiology of these disabilities, i.e. birth defects, or child abuse?