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Education: Funding shortfalls plague special education

Part 3 of a series on the state of education in the Santa Clarita Valley

Posted: November 13, 2010 8:19 p.m.
Updated: November 14, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Victoria Berrey’s sons both have autism.

Her 11-year-old, a Saugus Union School District student, and her 14-year-old, who is in the William S. Hart Union High School District, have both been enrolled in special-education classes since preschool.

“My kids could not be successful in a general-education environment,” Berrey said of her sons, who suffer from the developmental disorder that can create major social, communication and behavioral problems.

“Even if they understand the academic parts of it, which they do, they just can’t function in classrooms the size that we have in general education. It’s just too overwhelming. It’s just too many students.”

Berrey — who is the founding president of the Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network, a local nonprofit organization — is among a growing population of parents in the Santa Clarita Valley and across the nation whose children have various disabilities or conditions that require special classroom attention.

These “special needs” — ranging from mental impairments through a spectrum of psychological and developmental disorders to physical disabilities, such as blindness and deafness — require schools to provide customized lesson plans and individualized attention. Needs that carry much higher price tags than “general-education” needs of students without disabilities.

Those special-education services are mandated by government, but too often the money to support the services is not provided, putting them in the dreaded category of “unfunded mandates.”

Increasing need
The biggest growth in special-needs students in the Santa Clarita Valley and statewide has been among those diagnosed with autism.

In December 2009, the valley had 758 students with autism, a big jump from the 214 students with autism in 2002, according to figures from the Santa Clarita Valley Special Education Local Plan Area.

Many factors contribute to the growth in special-needs students, said Margaret Cherene, director of the SCV Special Education Local Plan Area, which manages the five local school districts’ special-education programs.

“The medical profession is doing more and more to save babies who would not have survived 30 years ago,” Cherene said.
In addition, parents are generally more aware and involved in their students’ learning than were parents decades ago, she said.

“When they see a child who is struggling in school, they want to find out why,” Cherene said.

But the rapid growth in the number of Santa Clarita Valley students with special needs may be attributable to another factor, as well.

Attraction to SCV schools
Santa Clarita Valley schools’ strong reputation for academic excellence means that families with special-needs students may be moving here specifically to enroll their students in local schools.

“Parents do move here because we have a wonderful reputation,” Cherene said, adding that the closeness of high-profile research institutes like UCLA makes the valley especially attractive.

“They just want their child to be the best child that they could be,” said Joyce Johnston, director of student-support services for the Saugus Union School District.

“I have come across families who have moved to Santa Clarita specifically for the hopes of getting into a better program,” said Berrey, a longtime Santa Clarita Valley resident.

Often families move from the Antelope Valley or from areas served by Los Angeles Unified School District, Berrey said.

A Sulphur Springs School District parent told The Signal last year that she and her family moved to Canyon Country three years ago because of the special-education services the local community provides.

School district officials have no way of tracking the number of special-needs students enrolled because parents moved here from other areas versus the number enrolled by longtime valley parents.

And even if they did, it would make no difference in the mandated services they offer.

Government mandate
The mandates stem from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA.

The legislation in the 1970s was meant to give school districts help in funding special education. At the time, it cost twice as much to serve a student with special needs as it cost to serve a general-education student.

The act calls for the federal government to pay for about 40 percent of special-education costs, Cherene said.

“They’ve never, ever come close to 40 percent,” she said.

In reality, the government might cover 18 percent of the costs, she said. A handful of small grants often helps school districts, but it never provides enough to make up the funding gap.

“Back in the ’70s when the disabilities act was passed, there was a commitment made by Congress at that time that the federal government would pay 40 percent of the cost,” Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, confirmed in an interview.

“At that time, $2 billion would have done it,” McKeon said.

But costs have risen, compounded by an increase in need.

McKeon said spending increased when Republicans won a House majority in 1994.

“We made an effort. ... We put in more money in the next 10 to 12 years into IDEA than they had ever put in before,” he said. “We got this up to the 18 percent” from 6 percent previously, he said.

But Cherene sees a disconnect between today’s elected officials and those who promised IDEA funding in the 1970s.

“They don’t feel compelled to respond to any promise that was made by Congress 35 years ago,” Cherene said. “It’s not even on their radar.”

The current recession has made things worse, she said.

“Special education is only one of the voices crying in the desert for more money,” Cherene said. “There is just no money to go around.”

Newhall School District board member Suzan Solomon said state spending also has failed to keep pace with needs.

“Within the last two years, most of the those things don’t make it through the (California) Legislature,” Solomon said. “Any bill that costs money has been put aside, for the most part.”

Cost of special needs
For the 2009-10 year, special-education revenues for all five Santa Clarita Valley school districts were $43,826,068.

Expenses were $70,528,851, leaving a deficit of $26,702,783 that local school districts have to fill.

“A lot of the time, the federal government will create mandates and then we don’t get all of the dollars for it,” Solomon said. “That’s really a big issue with special education.”

The money that school districts don’t receive for special-education services often comes out of a district’s general fund, which is the budget used for everything from implementing academic programs to hiring teachers.

“They’re expecting the states and school districts to make up that difference,” Castaic Union School District Superintendent James Gibson said.

For instance, this year’s special-education costs for Newhall School District are expected to be $8,242,619, according to the district’s budget.

But since the district will only receive $5,406,157 in special-education funding, it must come up with $2,836,462 out of its own pocket, according to district projections.

That gap, known as an “encroachment,” has been on the increase. Last year’s funding gap for Newhall School District’s special-education program was $2,573,745, according to the budget.

At Castaic Union School District, the situation is no different. For the 2009-10 fiscal year, special-education encroachment hit $1,176,888, which is the equivalent of 20 teachers’ salaries, according to district projections.

Valleywide, that funding gap grows.

“Our whole special-education preschool program is unfunded,” Gibson said of the Castaic district.

Yet the program is mandated by the federal government.

The financial frustrations go beyond academic needs.

“Vision screening, dental, health, immunization, nurses, psychologists,” Gibson said. “Those are all good things. But we don’t get paid for them.”

Even transportation costs add up.

Although local school districts have eliminated school bus services for general education students, they are still required by law to transport students with special needs.

Those transportation costs tap Castaic Union for $1.5 million a year, Gibson said.

Frustrations, solutions
In her role as advocate for autistic students, Berrey said families with special-needs students are feeling the education-
funding squeeze just like the rest of the education community.

“It’s not just general education that’s getting the pinch in education funding,” Berrey said. “There are a lot of parents who have told us that districts are talking to them about decreasing the amount of services.”

“It’s frustrating when you know that the law provides entitlements to certain services,” she said, “but at the same time, school districts can’t fully fund it. It kind of puts parents in an uncomfortable position where you have to ‘fight’ for
services.”

Berrey suggested a permanent increase in the amount of IDEA funding across the board as a way to make a difference.
Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurie Ender has a son with high-function autism. She also sees the need for more funding.

If schools don’t have the resources to educate a generation of students now, those kids will grow up to become adults who just can’t succeed in life, Ender said.

That could cost society even more money.

McKeon sees the possibility of more funding on the horizon with Republicans taking the House majority in January.

But he, too, noted the increasingly high cost of educating special-needs students.

“Now we’re up to $14 billion, $15 billion a year where $2 billion would have done it (in the past),” he said of congressional commitment to IDEA funding. “Now, $15 billion to $16 billion is only doing 18 to 20 percent” of the needed funding.

Ender hopes to see a nationwide discussion on how school districts can educate children — and how the programs to make that happen can be properly funded.

“Unfortunately, this is just a piece of the education-funding problem,” Ender said. “I’m not sure what the answer is.”

Whatever the answer, Gibson of Castaic Union said, school districts will fight on to educate kids.

“We will still do whatever it takes,” he said. “It’s just the nature of teaching.”

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