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Many issues can interfere with a child’s learning, from learning disabilities to mental and physical health issues to family tragedies to peer effects.
Many of these challenges can only be addressed effectively on an individual basis. This kind of help requires expertise, patience and sensitivity, and that's where counselors come in.
Or used to, at any rate. You might remember receiving help from a counselor in your school during your own childhood. If so, you should probably file the memory under "how it was." Few California public schools provide that kind of counseling anymore. California usually ranks at or near the bottom among the states in the ratio of counselors to students. In 2013, the California Department of Education reported “The ratio of students per counselor in this state averages 945 to 1, compared to the national average of 477 to 1, ranking California last in the nation.”
Counselors in California schools are far outnumbered by students with acute needs.
Students with special needs such as severe autism face challenges at school that go beyond academics. For example, these students are disproportionately involved in bullying incidents, either as the bully or as the victim, or both. A set of studies by the Interactive Autism Network in March 2012 suggests that this issue is particularly important for students with Asperger's syndrome. A 2008 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about one in 50 boys and about one in 250 girls has a form of autism, a ratio that has been steadily increasing.
About one in 50 boys and about one in 250 girls has a form of autism, a ratio that has been steadily increasing.
Elementary school teachers are increasingly responsible for spotting children who are struggling and for addressing learning differences, frequently without the professional training and support they need.
Federal law (IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires public schools to provide special education services to students with disabilities that adversely affect their education. A common feature of the required services is an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which specifies the district’s obligations [PDF] to the student.
Nationally, about 13.1% of students have an Individual Education Plan (IEP). California identifies fewer.
Different states have different processes to guide how a district identifies a student as having special needs, and the percentage of students identified varies accordingly. Nationally, about 13.1% of students have an Individual Education Plan (IEP). California districts identify fewer Special Education students, about 10% of enrollment.
In order to evaluate learning progress for all students, students with special needs have been included in annual testing. Students can be given extra time or other "accommodations" (such as having the test read to them) in order to enable them to participate in and complete the test. A small fraction of disabled students are given a different test, the California Alternate Assessment (CAA). (The CAA replaced the California Modified Assessment (CMA) in 2016. See Lesson 9.3 for more.)
In the early decades of federal funding for special education, students were designated as having "special needs" in a rather binary way, usually separating special students from "normal" ones. But time and science have matured the definitions. Increasingly, teachers and school leaders have concluded that everyone learns a little differently. For some, learning a melody is easy, but mastering a math concept is hard. For some, math is easy but names are hard to remember. Increasingly teachers are using the term "learning differences" rather than "disability" to discuss how students learn.
Great teachers learn to present concepts in flexible ways so that they engage all of their students, get them involved in their own learning, and permit them to show their understanding in different ways. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mentions this approach under the label Universal Design for Learning (UDL). ESSA did not attach new funds or incentives to the UDL approach, but its use of the term may raise its profile.
The cost of providing special education services varies significantly among schools and districts. According to the California Legislative Analyst, the average annual cost of educating a student with disabilities is more than double that for a mainstream student — approximately $22,300 compared to $9,600 in 2011. (Most students require less severe, less costly services, but some students require intensive interventions that cost notably more.)
Between 2005 and 2011, a combination of increasing special education costs and relatively flat state and federal special education funding meant local budgets had to cover an increasing share of these costs.
Federal and state funds specifically for special education don't fully cover the costs. Local funds contribute, too.
In the 2010-11 school year, 39% of special ed expenditures were carried locally, not reimbursed by federal or state funds. (This unreimbursed portion is sometimes insensitively called "encroachment" or "encumbrance," terms that irritate families whose children have special needs.)
The state funding model (LCFF) omits special education. Implicitly, it assumes that students with special needs are evenly distributed among the general population across the state.
School districts with great programs for kids with special needs face a bittersweet problem. If their success becomes well known, eventually they will attract more families that want a great program for their kids. The state school finance system does NOT provide extra money to districts based on the number of children with special needs, so a district can become a victim of its own success. (Money is allocated based on the total number of children attending, regardless of students' disability status.) The state funding model doesn't direct state or federal money according to individual learning needs: it assumes that students with special needs are evenly distributed among the general population across the state. Some of the logic behind this policy is that if the state awarded additional dollars for kids labelled as having special needs, districts would respond by labeling more kids.
To help mitigate these financial impacts, and also to create some economies of scale related to uncommon and high-cost disabilities - such as blindness - the state distributes special education funding through a regional network of 127 Special Education Local Planning Areas (SELPAs). State law requires that every school district, county office of education, and charter school belong to a SELPA. Most of the state's largest school districts have their own SELPA; smaller districts join together and negotiate the use of funds for students. About three-quarters of special education funding is allocated to SELPAs according to a "census-based" formula established in 1998-99 under AB602.
Special education rules and accounting are enormously complex, and experts disagree about their interpretation. Litigation has been an important driver of special education policy and special education issues can have big impacts on school districts, including impacts that are sometimes not very obvious.
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