California education board president says special education in "deep trouble" and needs reform

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource

A mixed class of students, some with special needs, learn music in the Coronado Unified School District.

Special education in California is in “deep trouble,” exacerbated by outmoded concepts and an extreme shortage of fully-prepared teachers, according to Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education.

Kirst said that the state’s special education system – which serves students with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities – is based on an antiquated model and that it needs “another look.”

“Someone needs to sit up and say, ‘We need to update it,’” he said.

Just over 1 in 10 of California’s 6.2 million public school students are in special education programs, at an annual cost of upwards of $12 billion in federal, state and local funds.  The number of special education students — along with the costs — has been rising in recent years.  But the proportion of special education students varies tremendously among counties — from a low of 7.2 percent in Inyo County to a high of 16 percent in Humboldt County, according to 2015 KidsData figures.

The system is rooted “in a set of ideas from the 1970s, based heavily on legal negotiations and legal rights,” Kirst said, referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, the principal federal law governing the field that was first approved by Congress in 1975.  He likened IDEA to California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which Kirst said also needs a makeover.

Compounding the challenge is the special education teacher shortage, which Kirst said is “the most extreme one we have.” Districts are “scrambling to find people,” he added.

Kirst was speaking at EdSource’s annual symposium in Oakland last week, where he received the organization’s first “Education Champion” award for his contributions to California education over nearly 50 years.

Michael Kirst

Michael Kirst

Kirst was first appointed president of the California State Board of Education in 1977 during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term in office. When Brown became governor once again in 2010, he appointed Kirst a second time to the State Board of Education, and he has been president of the board throughout Brown’s current tenure.

When he resumed his post on the state board after a 30-year interregnum, Kirst said reform of special education was on his “bucket list” of things to do.

“But that hasn’t happened in a serious way,” he said.  Kirst helped to initiate the Statewide Special Education Task Force that produced a report in 2015 with multiple recommendations for change, including creating a “culture of collaboration and coordination” across numerous state agencies, and giving school districts more control over special education funds.

Kirst said the task force “did a lot of good work,” but he expressed disappointment that not more progress has been made during his tenure.

Echoing Kirst’s remarks, Miriam Freedman, an attorney specializing in special education law and author of Special Education 2.0: Breaking Taboos to Build a New Education Law, said:  “The IDEA law did a fabulous job to bring educational opportunity to all children, but it needs a redo to see if it is serving our children and our schools now.”

She said the law was written principally with children who had cognitive impairments and physical disabilities in mind, but currently large numbers of children in special education have learning disabilities.  A major problem, Freedman said, is that often these children “only get served after they fail.”  “This is a ‘way to fail’ model,” she said. “Children don’t get services until they do poorly in school.”

Kristen Wright, director of the California Department of Education’s Special Education Division, said students with learning difficulties ideally would be identified before they are identified as failing, and as early as preschool, and then taught alongside other students instead of being isolated into special programs.

Carl Cohn, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, commended Kirst, along with Learning Policy Institute president Linda Darling-Hammond, for elevating the discussion on special education to “making  it a moral imperative to do the right thing.”

Cohn, who co-chaired the special education task force, said that special education changes cannot be isolated from reform of the regular education system.  “It is a heavy lift,” he said. “The type of changes that have to take place require major retraining of teachers in regular classrooms,” he said. That’s because large numbers of special education students will likely spend time in those classes, and often teachers there don’t have the training to work with children with special needs.

Kirst described the need for fully prepared special education teachers as “desperate.” California has had a persistent shortage over many years, but according to the Learning Policy Institute, the shortage has skyrocketed over the past two years.  To respond to the demand, “we created shortterm, quick programs that didn’t spend enough time on how to help train special ed teachers,” Kirst said.

He praised the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which is chaired by Darling-Hammond, for remedying that and upgrading the standards for a special ed credential. But now “it takes a long time to get the credential, and it is also expensive.”  He said it wasn’t clear that the rewards of the job are sufficient to attract and, importantly, retain teachers to the field.

Matthew Navo, superintendent of Sanger Unified near Fresno, who was a member of the special education task force, agreed that recruiting special ed teachers has become hugely challenging, and is likely to become even more so.

Classrooms are increasingly staffed with teachers who are interns or who have provisional permits, he said. “We are begging teachers to go into the (special ed) classroom,” he said.  In fact, according to the Learning Policy Institute, “new, under-prepared special education teachers outnumber those who are fully prepared 2:1,” a higher ratio than any other major teaching field.

Some teachers leave the field because of the bureaucratic burdens on teachers to meet the requirements of special education laws.  “You get into it to work with kids with special needs and make a difference in their lives, but now 60 percent of your time is managing their paperwork,” Navo said.

The shortage is “killing us in rural school districts with under 2,500 kids that require some effort to commute to and are not able to keep up with salary increases in larger districts,” Navo said.  But he said the shortage will be felt across the state. “In the next two years, it’s not going to matter where you are.”

Vicki Barber, the co-executive director of the Statewide Special Education Task Force, said she was encouraged by the fact that education leaders have endorsed the task force’s recommendations, outlined in its report titled  One System:  Reforming Education to Serve All Students. But she acknowledged the difficulties of reforming a complex system, especially at the school level. “You don’t move an entire program  just because a report has been written, even with the best ideas,” she said.

Having issued its report, the task force has been disbanded.  The action on a state level has moved to the Advisory Commission on Special Education, appointed by legislative leaders, Gov. Brown and the State Board of Education. Gina Plate, the commission’s chair, applauded Kirst for “shining a light on special education and moving us toward conversations that might not otherwise have happened.”

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