When Superintendent Austin Beutner, LAUSD Board Member George McKenna and City Council President Herb Wesson all gathered at Crenshaw High on the first day of school Tuesday to donate computers for a photo op, one South L.A. parent saw it as an opportunity to speak truth to power.
Lawrence Mulligan, an associate preacher at Galilee Baptist Church, was upset the district had transferred his now-10th grade son with high-functioning autism to a new school on the Westside just three weeks before summer break.
“I felt like I was forced because they didn’t have the supportive services he needed to keep him here,” said Mulligan, who has six kids, three of whom have autism. “I’m from this neighborhood, and I enjoy my son being in the neighborhood. I shouldn’t have to have him transferred way out just to get the supportive services that he needed.”
The district’s decision to put him on a bus to Hamilton High points out inequities that remain in the system at a moment when LAUSD is on the brink of being released from court supervision of its handling of kids with special needs after 26 years.
“Let’s keep it real, [at Hamilton] they cater to more people in the upper class,” he said. “Here, you have people in the community with less money. The funding is less. The programs are less.”
LAUSD is touting the end of the Chanda Smith Consent Decree, which settled a class action lawsuit originally filed in 1993 and mandated an independent monitor to supervise the district’s delivery of services to kids with special needs. A judge recently agreed to end that outside supervision in December.
Beutner believes that’s an endorsement of a job well done. “We are at a standard and a level which exceeds any other school district in the state of California, and probably any other school district across the nation like ours,” Beutner told Speak UP. “We are doing a fantastic – the best possible job we can do for students.”
Many parents of kids with special needs, who often have to hire attorneys to get their kids’ needs met, disputed that notion.
“That’s just straight up not true,” said Orley, a mom of an LAUSD first grader with special needs, who is also a veteran teacher getting her special education credential and interning in a nearby school district. (She asked to be identified by first name only.) “The biggest problem with LAUSD, as opposed to other districts, is that so many staff are shared and itinerant, and they go from school to school. They’re spread so thin. It’s such a huge, unwieldy district. It’s an abyss.”
Noel Scott, mother of a child with Down Syndrome who has taught special education to incarcerated kids and adults in New York and Los Angeles, recently wrote a blistering critique of programs she toured in her South L.A. community. One school had gone without a teacher in its special education classroom for most of the school year.
“I’m sure there are some really great programs serving people with really great incomes,” she said. “All I can say is I still know for a fact that down the street, there’s still a school that needs an independent monitor to even give a s--- about it because the district’s proven not to.”
David German, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys who handled the class-action lawsuit, said that it’s important to look at the progress the district has made since the suit was originally filed. At that time, many kids were not getting assessed or receiving any services. Kids of color were getting over-identified and labeled with “emotional disturbance,” and they were suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates. Rates of suspension and expulsion have dropped dramatically.
“LAUSD has come an incredibly long way,” German said, adding that nearly all the goals and legal requirements laid out in the consent decree have been met. Ending the consent decree, however, “does not indicate they are performing above all other districts. It means they’re complying with their obligations under federal law. They got up to the baseline, which was a big deal.”
LAUSD serves more than 65,000 kids with disabilities, many of whom are placed in special classes, separated from their typical peers. “I have concerns about the level of isolation of special education students,” German said. “There’s a lot of unnecessary segregation.”
Dissatisfied parents of kids with special needs still file about 1,600 “due process” legal cases against the district every year, a significant portion of the cases in the state, German said. Last year, the district spent more than $1.9 million in legal fees and paid out nearly $11 million to cover parents’ legal fees for these cases, according to an LAUSD spokeswoman.
Despite spending $1.75 billion on special education (out of an $8 billion general fund budget), outcomes for kids with special needs remain abysmal. In the 2017-18 school year, only 8% of kids with disabilities met state standards in math, which was 4% lower than the state average for kids with disabilities, while 10% met standards in English, 5% lower than the state average.
“Research shows that over 80% of kids with special needs can achieve at grade level with the right supports,” said Lisa Mosko, Speak UP’s Director of Special Education and a mother of two kids with learning differences. “I strongly disagree that LAUSD is rendering the highest-quality special ed services in the nation. The testing outcomes speak for themselves.”
In New York, where Mosko’s kids previously attended school, “students with special needs had many more options. There were collaborative team teaching classrooms at almost every school [featuring a special ed and general ed teacher working together in the same classroom], which brought them closer to the goal of full inclusion.”
Beutner acknowledged that the district still has work to do in areas not covered by the consent decree. “There are inequities,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re serving our highest needs populations where they live. We want to work toward inclusion, to have as many as possible students with special needs in a general ed classroom where they live.”
The district recently turned to former Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson to explore ways to include more students with special needs in general ed classrooms and to spend money more wisely.
“Can we better educate students in a general ed setting with access to core curriculum, where proficiency and more opportunities will open?” Beutner asked. “We have to do that very, very carefully because there’s a lot involved. We have a pilot going. We’re looking at the results from that. The next chapter for us is going to be closing that gap.”
Beutner said he hopes being released from the confines of the consent decree will free up more money to be spent on services. “We had a bunch of lawyers and bean counters telling us what we could and couldn’t do, asking us to spend millions of dollars every year on all these forms we’d send to places. We finally got out of that. So we’ll have more money to put into classrooms where the students are.”
Parents, however, have scant trust that less oversight will mean better services for kids.
“That’s silly,” Scott said. “If they were using the money to help kids in the first place, they wouldn’t have gotten the consent decree. You have to prove that you can do right by kids and that you’re going to use money in the classroom for the most vulnerable children in our public schools. As of this moment today, I still don’t see it.”
LAUSD actually allocated more than $500 million to renovate schools and help make them accessible to kids using wheelchairs -- but failed to bring the schools into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to German and a 2016 report from the independent monitor.
“The district did have an obligation to comply with the law, should have complied with it in all of its new construction. They’ve just absolutely failed to do it,” German said. “I don’t think anybody’s out to get them by pointing out that, for whatever reason, it’s proven incredibly difficult for them to make serious inroads on that front.”
The independent monitor is expected to make one final report specifying ways that LAUSD still needs to improve before closing the office at the end of the year.
“It’s pretty devastating for me as a parent, losing oversight,” Scott said. “To be fair, I don’t know how effective it was. I just know I was planning to go on Sept. 25 to speak at one of the independent monitor events, and I was really glad to have the opportunity. Now, I don’t even know if they’re going to do it, and if they do, does it matter?”
But German points out that an army of attorneys remains on hand ready to represent families whose kids’ needs are not being met. “There are people with eyes on the district that are going to keep them honest.”
-- Speak UP offers workshops to help families of kids with special needs learn their rights. For more information, contact email@example.com.