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L.A. Reaches Compromise on Special Ed

The school board wants latitude in placing disabled students in regular classrooms.

May 13, 2003|Erika Hayasaki and Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writers

A sweeping federal court order aimed at improving special education in the Los Angeles Unified School District would be revamped to give the district more latitude in how it integrates about 33,000 disabled students into regular classrooms, under a proposal to be voted on today by the school board.

The new compromise, negotiated under a federal mediator, is a major victory for the school district, which argued that the federal consent decree was too cumbersome and costly and contained too many quotas.

If it is approved during today's closed-door session, the plan would be a significant shift from the district's commitment last year to place all disabled students in regular classrooms for at least part of the time.

"The prior approach was: 'Let us tell you what to do.' It was like they were giving us a recipe to tell us how to function," Supt. Roy Romer said. "This new plan gives us 18 things we have to accomplish by a certain time line. It's performance-based, and we're given the flexibility to make it possible."

This week's compromise in the Chanda Smith case, named for a disabled girl whose family sued L.A. Unified, stems from the district's appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court appointed a federal mediator, Thomas Hehir, to work on a settlement between the district and parents of special education students, who argued that their children were being unnecessarily segregated and deprived of adequate education.

Although the district instigated the latest round of mediation and got most of what it wanted, both sides said they were satisfied with the new plan.

The plan would do away with a directive that special education students account for 7% to 17% of each school's enrollment -- a quota that the district found onerous. It also would allow schools more flexibility to determine how and when students should be integrated.

There are 86,000 special education students in the district; most already are integrated into regular classrooms for at least part of the day.

"This agreement would be seeking that a majority of kids would spend a good deal of time in regular ed classes," Hehir said. "It has to be part of the academic day, but there are different ways in which kids can be integrated. And that's one of the ways that is to some extent going to be left up to the school district. Allowing schools to have some latitude in how they do this is a major change."

Although the proposed consent decree was not publicly available Monday, disability advocacy lawyers, district staffers and federal officials discussed its contents in interviews.

"This is a major ... change that has all sides signing off together," said David Tokofsky, one of two board members to comment on the plan Monday.

The plan would commit the district to spending $67 million over five years to improve its facilities for special education students. But officials said the proposed decree would cost far less overall than the plan it would replace, in part because it would not require extensive modifications at every school.

Unlike the original consent decree, the new plan also has an explicit length: It would end in three years.

The modified plan also would mandate that the district decrease the proportion of African American children in special education, which many educators believe to be unnecessarily high, and increase the graduation rates of disabled students.

Lawyers for the parents, who had complained that the district refused to implement the original plan, said Monday that they were convinced that the district was invested in the modified court order and would follow through this time.

"From my perspective, I want a decree that the district is interested in implementing," said Catherine Blakemore, executive director of the statewide Protection and Advocacy Inc., the disability rights nonprofit that represented the parents. "And it seems to me that the district has signed on to this at the highest levels.... That bodes well for the district coming into compliance."

The first sign of a breakthrough in the mediation talks came late last year, when the parties announced that 16 special education centers, which were originally supposed to be integrated and made into regular schools, would be preserved.

The second major issue -- worked out in the latest plan -- had to do with how students would be integrated into regular classrooms. While most of the parents involved in the lawsuit supported stringent quotas, others thought these went too far.

"The issue was the blanket statement that one size fits all," said Alexandra Gonzales, a mother of a mentally retarded student who is in a special school. "The quotas were just a horrendous mistake."

Placing special education students in regular classes is a relatively new approach in schools and has been vigorously debated around the country.

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