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The Hijacking of Special Education

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All qualified persons with disabilities within the jurisdiction of a school district are entitled to a free appropriate public education. "

- U. S. Department of Education

Chanda Smith was a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) student with special-education needs who fell through cracks in the system. In 1993, lawyers from the ACLU filed a class-action suit under her name in an attempt to ensure that students of all needs received the appropriate education to which they were entitled. The result of that suit was a consent decree, later modified, that has put the district's delivery of special-education services under the microscope of an Independent Monitor from the federal judiciary for a quarter of a century. This has forced many beneficial changes to the system, including methods to ensure that the meetings that formulate Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are held on time and systems to track the delivery of services are in place.

Unfortunately, at some point, the process was "hijacked " by those who forgot that we call the services these children receive "special education" because it is individualized for their specific needs. Instead, they pushed a one-size-fits-all approach that demonized programs that did not meet their goal of providing services exclusively in a general-education setting. Aided by politicians like Monica Garciawho concentrate on the high costs of these programs without considering the benefits, the hijackers were highly successful at forcing inclusion, even when it was not beneficial to the student. This approach resulted, among other things, in depriving parents of the option of enrolling severely disabled children at special-education centers.

At the end of the year, the LAUSD will finally be released from the Chanda Smith Modified Consent Decree (MCD). As the LAUSD prepares for the transition to a new era, the Division of Special Education presented an overview at the inaugural meeting of Scott Schmerelson'sSpecial Education Committee. Unfortunately, the lack of consideration for those with the most severe needs was predictable.

Despite the fact that the most severely affected student with special-education needs will never be eligible to receive a high school diploma, the first of the 14 performance indicators that the district will be monitoring is "graduation ." In case there was any expectation that this also included students who work hard to receive a certificate of completion, the district stated that they measure performance by the "percent of all exiting students... who graduate from high school with a regular diploma ." As a result, schools that provide services to children with special needs are penalized as the graduation rate is one of the items on which they are graded.

Even worse, the district's "root cause analysis" of the "problem" states that "students with disabilities on the core spend the majority of their time in segregated settings, often contributing to inattention, less motivation and lower expectations for attending school. " This not only dismisses the hard work and dedication of teachers running these classrooms but the needs of the students who require the services that are best provided in this setting.

The presentation continued by stating that the third performance indicator would focus on both participation and achievement on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). As a parent who has exercised my right to opt-out of standardized testing for my children in general education, I have even less faith in these tests as a way to adequately measure the progress of my children with special education needs. This is particularly true with children whose progress should not be measured by grade-level-based achievements but instead on how well they are being encouraged to meet their full potential.

The next indicator sets targets for how many students should spend the majority of their time in general education classrooms, limits on how many spend most of their time in specialized classrooms and how many students can be enrolled in schools that specifically serve children with special-education needs. The goals set are arbitrary and ignore the needs of individual students. Worse yet, the district condemned Non-public Schools (NPS) for lacking "a plan for [the] reintegration of students back to [a] general-education setting" as if disabilities can be taught away. There is an alarming lack of recognition that, for some students, special classrooms and specialized schools are the best options.

Most perplexing of the indicators were the ones that sought to ensure that racial and ethnic groups were not disproportionately represented in those receiving special-education services either overall or by specific disability. This contributes to the perception that being labeled as needing special-education services is somehow a bad thing and makes the flawed assumption that receiving extra services is somehow harmful. If the goal of special education is to ensure that students reach their full potential, then overdiagnosis is always better than failing to diagnose every child who needs services. Yet, somehow failing to ensure that every child with a need is brought into the system is not even addressed.

The charter-school industry's tendency to ignore children with moderate to severe special-education needs was not mentioned during the presentation. This was a significant omission as it imposes high costs tothe LAUSD.

After the district's presentation, I took the opportunity to address the committee during public comment:

Advocating For Students Who Can't Speak For Themselves The Chanda Smith consent decree should have helped every LAUSD student with special education needs. Instead, it harmed the most vulnerable.
Advocating For Students Who Can't Speak For Themselves The Chanda Smith consent decree should have helped every LAUSD student with special education needs. Instead, it harmed the most vulnerable.
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Thank you to Scott Schmerelson for all that you have done to protect the Special-Education Centers and for holding this meeting after school so that parents can attend. Might I suggest that, in the future, you express that children are welcome as some parents were concerned about bringing children to this meeting? I know that was not the intent, but maybe in the future, it is something to consider that they feel welcome.

As I listened to this presentation I was really concerned about how it ignored the most severely disabled in our community and the most vulnerable. I have two daughters who are on that scale, one of who attends the program at Leichman Career Transition Center (CTC).

When one of them was in high school, she went to Kennedy, which has an excellent special-education program but does not receive a lot of support from the principal. We had a teacher for four years who greatly benefited our child but she was constantly harassed by her superiors because she was not conforming to the general-education guidelines and she would be written up for not teaching according to those specifications.

What this teacher did pay attention to was that most of the children in her class did not know their phone number or their emergency contact. She, therefore, made it a point every day to make sure that she worked on those.

One day my daughter was left behind by her other father during a visit with him and she was lost. She was found by the police walking down the middle of the street in her nightgown and somehow managed to give her name, her mom's name, and her phone number so that they could contact us right away. To panicking parents, that was a welcome result.

I do not care that my daughter will never graduate. The presentation talked a lot about graduation rates, but some students just don't have the ability to graduate. They will never be on that track but they matter too.

My daughter was not reading anywhere near grade level but she knew her phone number and she was safe. You can't beat that.

We cannot lose track of the students like my daughter. The school system must address their needs too.


Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special-education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Counciland was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." His past blogs can be found at . Opinions are his own.
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Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a " (more...)

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