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Improving Special Education in California

Paul Warren, Laura Hill September 25, 2018
Children in elementary classroom

What are the most significant challenges in California’s K–12 school system today? A new report, Getting Down to Facts II, recently released comprehensive findings. PPIC was asked to weigh in on the topic of special education.

We contributed an update to our 2016 report, Special Education Finance in California. This report concluded that state funding for services to students with disabilities is inequitable, inadequate, and lacks transparency. It also fails to provide the same level of local control as other state funding programs. In addition, preschool services to infants and toddlers with disabilities are lacking.

Our new report, Revisiting Finance and Governance Issues in Special Education, expands the analysis of these issues. Overall, we suggest that weaving greater accountability into governance and finance of special education has the potential to improve equity for students with special needs.

Specifically, we find:

  • The state has several good options for revising the special education funding formula so that it better reflects district costs. However, we find that basing funding on the number of disabled students in each district could create negative incentives for districts.
  • Better funding for services to infants and toddlers with disabilities would encourage districts to increase the number of children receiving early services, which would improve behavioral and cognitive skills in some children.
  • Current accountability measures for student success do not acknowledge the unique program factors that can affect district performance data. We find the growth of individual student outcomes is a better measure of progress than the average group scores for all students with disabilities.

We also revisit the role of regional Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) in special education finance. SELPAs provide support to districts and students in a number of ways, including in the allocation of state and federal funds. We find that district superintendents strongly support their local SELPA, although they provided numerous suggestions for improvement. And we discuss ways that SELPAs could give districts greater autonomy when districts determine that SELPA financial arrangements do not meet local needs.

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