LAUSD Chief of Special Education
The end of 2019 brought a conclusion to the Chanda Smith consent decree and its modification. For the first time in over a generation, the delivery of special education services within the LAUSD is not being overseen by an independent monitor. For the vast majority of parents whose children have special education needs, this is a period full of concern as they wait to see how the country’s second-largest school district will act without someone looking over their shoulders. However, when it comes to students with extreme needs, there was also hope that there will be an improvement in their relationship with the district.
Chanda Smith’s needs, which stemmed from her dyslexia diagnosis, were much different than those of children with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. This fact was ignored as the plaintiff’s lawyers and the Independent Monitor pushed a one-size-fits-all solution under the assumption that students of all needs would thrive in general education classrooms. The eventual result was that special education centers were threatened with closure as parents were denied the ability to choose these schools for their children.
With the end of the consent decree, those representing students with severe special education needs are now free from the restrictions imposed by the Independent Monitor. This will allow them to fight for the specific needs of these students separate from those with which they have little in common. Unfortunately, a presentation by the LAUSD’s Special Education unit at the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) suggests that the fight will be a difficult one.
Suggesting that the LAUSD will continue along the same path as before, Marco Tolj, the co-lead director of the District’s Division of Special Education described the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as “the amount of time students spend in general education.” Federal law actually requires “that students with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with nondisabled peers and that special education students are not removed from regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” For some, the LRE is a general education classroom. However, for those with moderate to severe disabilities, other accommodations may better allow the child to meet their full potential. For those students, the LRE would be a separate setting like a special education center, career transition center (CTC) or non-public school.
Tolj went on to explain that the district is not meeting the target set by the state that approximately 55% of students spend 80% of their time in general education. These goals also seek to limit the number of children in separate settings to 4%. Currently, 8% of LAUSD students are attending schools outside of traditional “inclusive” schools. This leaves open the possibility that the LAUSD will pressure parents and guardians for half of these children to leave the specialized systems in order to meet these targets. This seems counter to the federal requirement that all students, regardless of need, receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
The LAUSD’s Chief of Special Education made sure that the “right message” was being received by declaring that “our students are first and foremost general ed students. All of them.” This makes it clear that the department that is supposed to be advocating for children who lack the ability to function in an academic environment has no interest in serving their needs. This is devastating news for anyone who hoped that the post-Chanda Smith LAUSD would be a more welcoming place for children with moderate to severe disabilities.
During the Question and Answer period, I gave Tolj the ability to clarify his statement and he did state that “LRE would vary for each student.” When asked how the targets were set, he answered that they are “state targets.” However, this expert on special education did not know how these targets were derived. He then noted that “the majority of our students…fall into a mild to moderate disability” and that “in terms of services we want to look at those kids with mild to moderate, and all kids, spend as much time in general education as possible.”
Saying that parents and guardians “are the best advocate for the child”, Tolj left it to Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings to ensure that children are enrolled in the program that is most appropriate to their needs. However, this ignores the fact that parents and guardians are often bullied by the district during these meetings and are often unable to get the proper services without hiring a lawyer. Those that settle with the district are then forced to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from sharing information with other parents who are going through the IEP process. It is hard to say no one else but the IEP team is going to dictate what the right program is right for a child when the district sets the parameters of what can be offered.
With the primary elections for four LAUSD board seats coming up in March, it is important to understand how the candidates view special education issues. Three candidates (Dr. Silke Bradford and Patricia Castellanos in District 7 and Elizabeth Badger in District 3) have cited personal connections to these issues. The incumbent Board Member from District 3, Scott Schmerelson, fought to ensure that Special Education Centers remained open and notes that “It is called an Individualized Education Program because it should be tailored to the individual student”. He was also one of two board members who voted against appealing a court decision that benefited children with severe needs. On the opposite side of the issue is Board District 7 candidate Tanya Ortiz Franklin who refers to Special Education Centers as “segregationist” and believes that they should be closed, just not “quickly.”
It is clear that the direction the LAUSD takes in a post-Chanda Smith world will be determined by who eventually wins these seats. Nick Melvoin is already trying to forcibly move CTC West from the Fairfax High Campus. If Reed Hastings and the Charter School industry have their way, he will get additional allies. If the voters are not persuaded by the ads purchased with the millions of dollars that education privatisers will donate in these elections, Melvoin will be stopped in his tracks and all kids will have a better chance of receiving an education that is appropriate to their needs.
NOTE: While Carl is an appointed alternate to the LAUSD’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC), he does not speak on their behalf.