A little over 10 percent of the 6.2 million public school students in California are enrolled in special education programs. This represents a yearly cost of more than $12 billion in local, state and federal funds. In recent years, there has been a continuous increase in the number of special needs students and the cost of the programs. However, the quantity of special needs students varies enormously among counties. It ranges between Inyo County with a low of 7.2 percent and Humboldt County with a high of 16 percent.
California State Board of Education president, Michael Kirst, has expressed that special education in the state is in serious trouble. This is amplified by outdated concepts and a tremendous shortage of fully-qualified teachers, which is compounding the challenge even further. Districts across the state are struggling to find people to place in these critical positions.
The special education system in California serves students who have cognitive, physical and learning disabilities. Kirst states that the system is rooted in an antiquated model that desperately needs updating. The current system is being operated under guidelines that initially received congressional approval in 1975.
Miriam Freedman is a lawyer who specializes in special education law. She has stated that the law was primarily written with children with physical disabilities and cognitive impairments in mind. However, there are currently large numbers of special needs students with learning disabilities. Freedman notes that these students are only served after they do poorly in school. She sees it as a ‘way to fail’ model,” which is a major problem.
California Department of Education’s Special Education Division director, Kristen Wright, has stated that students with learning difficulties should be identified prior to failing. Ideally, this would happen as early as preschool. These students would be taught together with other students, rather than being insulated into special needs programs.
Following a 30-year interval, Kirst resumed his position on the state board and promised reformation for special education. However, he has admitted that this has not been achieved as intended. He assisted in setting up the Statewide Special Education Task Force. A report was produced in 2015 outlining a number of recommendations for change.
These include numerous state agencies collaborating and coordinating their efforts and granting school districts more autonomy over special needs funds. A lot of good work was done by the task force; however, Kirst has expressed dissatisfaction that more progress has not been made during his term.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing was praised by Kirst for upgrading the requirements for special education credentials. However, with the upgrade, he has acknowledged that getting the credentials takes a long time and it is costly as well. He is not sure whether the job rewards are adequate to attract and retain teachers in the field.
There are teachers leaving the field due to the bureaucratic problems of satisfying the standards of the special education laws. In rural school districts, the shortage is especially challenging with roughly 2500 students who need effort to commute, and the institutions are unable to match salary increases in the bigger larger districts. However, it has been projected that the shortage will soon be felt all across the state. Therefore, within the next couple of years, it will not where the school is located.
Our special education tutors have been following this story, and are working to bring awareness to these issues so that we can give our special needs children the education that they deserve!