Californias Special Education Programs on the Brink

Special education in California’s public school system is in peril. The recommendation of consulting firms, budget woes, and a total misunderstanding of the services offered to students with special needs are culminating to destroy an already beleaguered system.

This is the revelation that was reported in May 2012 publication of “California Educator” a magazine representing the state’s teacher organization, California Teacher Association (CTA).

Aside from drastic cuts, the article – written by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin, and based on a report available to CTA members called “Special Education in California” – describes the nefarious measures some school districts in the state have taken in reducing the cost of special education.

 Some of these measures include:

1. Using misleading language and changing job titles of various programs under the special education umbrella.

2. Changing a student’s IEP without notifying members of the IEP team.

3. Hiring consultants from firms outside the district to re-structure a district’s special education program.

4. Forcing the mainstreaming of special education students into a general education classroom despite their readiness to handle this.

5. Taking away vital collaboration time for special education teachers and their mainstreamed students.

6. District circumventing state and national laws such as Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) by either searching for loopholes to justify drastic cuts.

Another ploy used by several districts is to use and abuse the state’s new primary special education service, Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI).

According to the article, SAI is “a catch-all to describe a variety of instructional services on a student’s IEP.” The program started in 2007 and has slowly become the primary service of every school district in the state.

In the process, district officials and school administrators have used its general definition to justify cutting traditional special education programs such as Special Day Classes (SDC) and Resource Special Program (RSP) and replace it with either a SAI class or co-taught courses.

Some districts have even placed general education courses (usually those that are designated as a co-taught class) under SAI. As a result, many have eliminated special education courses and services to its barest minimum. In other cases, the SAI courses are being taught by special educators whose classes will consist of low-performing general education students.

The SAI designation is not the only name-game being used in California’s public school system.  The article mentions a trend in which districts are changing specific job titles of teachers (general and special education) to “education specialist.”  Educational specialist is the same name given to the advanced credential given to special educators.

The reason for this designation is that the district can easily place a student with special needs in a general education class without special education services, and then label it an SAI class.

Another trend is the hiring of private consulting firms. They are vested in finding ways to save the district money. In many cases, they do this without reviewing the special education programs – or the laws, in general. They advise district officials to make drastic cuts or reorganize it all together.

Ironically, these firms don’t come cheap. The article gave an example of one such firm, School Innovation and Advocacy, who helped to reorganize Fremont Unified School District’s special education program.

“Teachers were astounded when Fremont Unified spent $44,000 in Jobs Bill funding to hire the service [of the company] to review the district’s special education programs.” Posnick-Goodwin wrote. “They were even more thunderstruck at the recommendations.”

The recommendations were to blend SDC classes with RSP classes, reduce certified and classified staffs, and mainstream all or most special education students. At the time of this writing, FUSD’s board of education had not voted to implement these recommendations.

On a Personal Note

The situation goes deeper. As a special educator in a small school district, this writer has seen first-hand the drastic, cost-cutting changes have caused. At the time of the writing, the district was proposing measures that would eliminate the position of DIS counselors. These counselors often dealt with students with emotional issues or disorders. They were part of the services offered in a student’s IEP.

There have been other cuts. Already nearly 40 percent of all instructional assistants in the district have been eliminated. In one school a majority of special education teachers do not have instructional assistants.

Also, collaboration time – often a period in the day designated for RSP teachers (a title that doesn’t exist in the district, anymore) to meet with students or their teachers was taken away. It is now a rarity if the special educator will meet with the students on his case-load.

Who Loses?

As the article mentions, the real losers in this are the students. In numerous cases, administrators placed students who were not ready for mainstreaming in the most advanced courses. It was not surprising to find students with third-grade reading and writing levels placed in honor’s English (in this particular case, an administrator removed the requirements for honor’s English and placed the students there on the basis they did well in their previous class).

On top of that, services that were once stipulated by state and national laws are vanishing. This may include speech and physical therapy, counseling, and extra academic help.


Teachers, parents, and other involved in special education need to by wary of the changes. Many of them are illegal. In some cases, these changes have been challenged and reversed.

This situation may seem like one state’s problem; however, what happens in California can have consequences in other states, as well. If special education is to survive in the state and beyond, everyone involved in it have to take proactive measure to save it.