School Beat: Special Education Parents Seek to be Heard in Sacramento

by Rachel Powell Norton on May 17, 2007

This month, policymakers in Sacramento are beginning to get serious about the state budget, which is due at the end of June. That’s why for the past two years, parent members of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education have taken a field trip to Sacramento to participate in the annual “Legislative Information Sharing Day.” This lobbying day was created a decade ago by special education administrators, as a way of educating parents on special education policy and funding issues, and to enlist us in their efforts to educate legislators on these issues as well.

Special education is governed by a Federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). When IDEA was passed in 1975, the Federal government pledged to cover 40 percent of the cost of special education programs, but this pledge has never been fulfilled. In 2004, Congress set out a schedule that would bring full funding by 2011, but this schedule has been ignored in every budget passed since then. Currently, the Federal government is funding 17 percent of the cost of providing special education in California – about $1.1 billion. If the Federal government paid its full share, California special education programs would receive an additional $1.4 billion.

If that weren’t bad enough, the State government has also played politics with special education, most recently with a law that minimizes the impact of any Federal increases in IDEA funding. This highly technical provision–known rather nauseatingly as the “bifurcated COLA”–quietly passed in the last days of the 2004-05 fiscal year, and has caused school districts in California to miss out on $54 million in additional funding.

All these missing dollars and cents add up to this fact: any shortfall in funds available for special education must come from somewhere, since school districts are legally required to provide each special education student with an individualized program (IEP) appropriate to his or her specific needs. Any costs above the State and Federal special education grants must be covered out of the school district’s general fund.

This is known as an “encroachment,” and it basically means that there isn’t enough money to meet everyone’s educational needs. It also means that local special education administrators are under intense pressure to keep costs down. Though money isn’t supposed to be discussed at IEP meetings, it is foremost in the minds of every decision-maker at the table. Parents must understand that budget constraints force districts to offer the best IEP they think they can afford – not necessarily the best IEP for the child.

Clearly, legislators in Washington and Sacramento need to know how their decisions are affecting our children. To prepare for our visit, the CAC for SpEd invited Vernon Billy, President of Governmental Solutions Group and SFUSD’s go-to man in Sacramento, to give us some pointers at our last meeting. Mr. Billy had many helpful suggestions about getting legislators’ attention. Some of them, like raising money, are currently beyond our group’s reach. Others, like forming coalitions with other groups who present similar viewpoints, are interesting but will take some long-term effort. Ultimately, he commended us for being on the right track (legislators do sit up and take notice when constituents take the time to visit them in Sacramento) but cautioned us that changes in special education funding formulas in Sacramento are unlikely to happen any time soon.

Armed with that realistic (if somewhat depressing) assessment, our group of six SFUSD parents and two administrators set off to Sacramento on May 2nd. Upon arriving, we spent a few hours learning about promising legislation before the Legislature, including:

• AB 850 (Torrico) would repeal the “bifurcated COLA” provision and restore funding that was lost when the state suddenly ceased funding cost of living adjustments on Federal special education grants;

• AB 964 (Houston) would provide incentive pay for special education teachers, as a way of alleviating the chronic shortage of teachers in this area;

• AB 1281 (Soto) would require petitioners for charter schools to demonstrate how they will serve children with disabilities, and describe in more detail how they will provide appropriate professional development for their teachers who work with children with special needs;

• AB 1659 (Lieber) would greatly improve parents’ ability to receive fair and impartial settlements in special education disputes;

• SB 527 (Steinberg) would require physicians to routinely evaluate children under age five for signs of autism. It appears that autism will be a major focus in the next legislative session, as three major efforts (fact-finding by the Legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism and the Secretary of Public Instruction’s Autism Advisory Committee and the creation of the Department of Developmental Services ASD Guidelines for Effective Intervention) will be wrapping up this spring and summer.

We were also heartened by the knowledge that the prospect of the Federal government finally funding its full pledge under IDEA looks more hopeful than it has in years, thanks to the new Democratic majority in Congress. We are keeping our fingers crossed, and seeking a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to press our case.

After a quick lunch, we headed down the street to meet with our local representatives – Assemblyman Mark Leno, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, Senator Carole Migden and Senator Leland Yee. In each case, we were able to spend at least a few minutes with each legislator and his or her staff (special mention to Senator Yee, who met with us face-to-face for almost a half-hour), to talk about our children and the challenges we parents experience in navigating the currently under-funded and highly complex system of special education.

While we were received politely and felt very grateful for the legislators’ time, we also concluded that we still have a long way to go towards our goal of gathering enough support for a special education system with the resources to provide high-quality service and high academic expectations for all children with disabilities. A big obstacle is, as always, money—but the bigger obstacle is will. Our field trips to Sacramento have taught us that we need to build that will by working the system – getting organized, cultivating support and relationships, and continuing over time to push our agenda.

Rachel Norton is the parent of two children in San Francisco public schools and a member of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, which generally meets on the fourth Thursday of each month, except July and December. For more information, please call (415)920-5040 or e-mail cac_specialed@hotmail.com.

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