In Partnership with 74

Special ed enrollment at charters nearly matches district’s percentage, but exodus from LA Unified looms

Craig Clough | July 22, 2016

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

LA Unified’s district schools and independent charters enroll nearly the same percentage of students with disabilities after five years of gains by charters, a new report shows.

But cooperation between nearly 100 of LA Unified’s 221 charters and the district could slide into chaos if the LA Unified school board decides not to continue a five-year pilot program that has been credited with the enrollment increase. At least one charter leader said discontinuing the pilot could cause a chain reaction leading to the school board not approving the charters’ renewals.

The report, from LA Unified’s independent monitor of its special education programs, shows that 11.04 percent of students at independent charters are in special education — a new high — compared to 11.96 percent at district schools. The statistics were celebrated in a press release this week from the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). However, the release does not mention that the district still has a much larger number of special education students with moderate or severe disabilities, who are more costly to educate.

The number of students with moderate to severe disabilities at the nearly 100 charters has increased from 1.2 percent in 2010-11 to 2.1 percent this past school year, while the percentage of special education students in traditional district schools with moderate to severe disabilities has risen to 4.72 percent from 3.63 percent five years ago. The district noted in an email that the percentage at traditional schools includes preschools, which charter schools do not serve, so “it is difficult to compare the district’s percentage to charters.”

Caprice Young, CEO of Magnolia Public Schools, operator of eight charters in LA Unified, said the reason for the increase is the pilot program that is up for review this fiscal year.

“The pilot has led to a lot of really great things. It has led to an increase in the quality of special education in charter schools because we have been implementing the best practices that we have been learning from each other,” said Young, a former LA Unified school board president.

In 2011, some charter operators were threatening to leave LA Unified’s Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA) and have their special education students served by the El Dorado County Office of Education in Northern California. Under state law, multiple school districts can band together to pool money and resources to serve special education students, and some of the district’s charters believed the cost of special ed at El Dorado would be cheaper.

But then a deal was struck that persuaded the charter schools not to leave LA’s SELPA, and that deal must now be reviewed during the current fiscal year.

Under the board-approved pilot, charter schools can select one of three options for how to serve their special education students through LA Unified. In Option One, the district provides all of the staff and services for a charter school’s special education students and the charters pay all of their special education budget dollars to the district. Under Option 2, charters can select an outside provider from a list of district-approved vendors. Under Option 3, which offers the highest level of autonomy for charters, the schools pay a portion of their special education fees to the district to administer the SELPA, but the rest of the money is managed by the charter school.

A total of 123 charter schools used Option 3 for the 2015-16 school year, 90 used Option 2 and one used Option One. Nearly 100 using the high-autonomy option have informed the district they may leave its SELPA. Young said autonomy is the reason that more special education students are choosing charters because the quality of the services has improved.

According to the independent monitor’s report, special education students at charters have increased by 34 percent since 2010-11, when they made up 8.21 percent of enrollment. The report said the “continued increase in (students with disabilities) enrollment is evidence that the changes to the policies and practices for servicing (students with disabilities) have resulted in a positive outcome.”

Adding to the stakes is that the board in recent years has been hesitant to approve a charter school or a charter renewal if it is not part of the district’s SELPA, even if the school is high performing. In 2013, 20 LA Unified charter schools were part of the El Dorado SELPA, and today it is seven. If the high-autonomy schools leave the district’s SELPA, it could lead to denials by the board when they come up for their five-year renewal.

“We know how (the board) feels about El Dorado. They are no longer willing to approve charters that are no longer in their SELPA, and a couple of them have gone into El Dorado,” Young said. “And in many cases, not all cases, the school board chose not to approve schools because the case that they made was that unless (the district) was providing the special education they could not confirm that the quality of the special education was appropriate. So if they would discontinue Option 3, that would be close to 100 charters probably no longer authorized by LAUSD.”

Young added that most on both sides are happy with the high-autonomy option, but if the board were to discontinue it or alter it significantly, the charters using it would leave LA Unified’s SELPA and go to El Dorado. Young said by law a school must inform a district a year and a day in advance if they might leave the district’s SELPA, and the schools using the high-autonomy option all sent a letter to the district on June 29 informing them that they would leave if it went away.

“Everyone is really happy and no one really wants to leave, but the politics are so weird you never really know,” Young said.

The charters that are threatening to leave LA Unified’s SELPA include some of the district’s largest and highest-performing charter management organizations, including Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, KIPP Public Charter Schools, Magnolia Public Schools and PUC Schools.

Kate Dove, a special education advisor to CCSA, agreed that the high-autonomy option was a big reason for the increase in special education enrollment at charters.

“We think (high autonomy) allows charters to have more autonomy and flexibility in their special education programming. They were completely dependent on the district before, and now they have some funding where they can hire their own special ed staff, and we think that increase in infrastructure is a major contributor to the change in the enrollment,” Dove said.

Adding to uncertainty is that Sharyn Howell, executive director of the district’s Division of Special Education, retired this year and no permanent replacement has been named yet by Superintendent Michelle King. The district said she was not available to comment, and Beth Kauffman, the interim director, only answered a few basic questions via email.

The district did provide the following statement in response to questions about the renewal of the high-autonomy option and CCSA’s press release:

“Students – including those with disabilities – should have access to the many instructional choices offered within District boundaries.

“The District’s Office of Independent Monitor has reported that the special education enrollment at independent charters has continued its upward trend. This demonstrates that collaboration with LA Unified has improved policies and services for our special-education students.

“The data shows that the enrollment of students with disabilities at independent charter schools has increased to 11.04 percent, compared with 11.96 percent for traditional schools. While this progress is welcome, it is worth noting that LA Unified continues to serve the overwhelming majority of severely disabled students.

“We will continue to ensure that we provide students with disabilities with a free, appropriate public education.”

Read Next