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Charter schools in L.A. Unified to get more special education money

The district's traditional schools will lose some funding under a new pact.

January 05, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Local charter schools will receive more money to educate disabled students and more freedom from the Los Angeles Unified School District in the process, under an agreement approved Tuesday by the Board of Education.

The board unanimously approved the pact, which will cost the cash-strapped school system millions of dollars because the district will now give charter schools state money that it previously kept for traditional schools' special education programs.

But failing to make the deal could have cost the district many millions more if charters exercise a new right to contract for special education programs.

"This is a gamble against how big the loss would be" if the school system did nothing, board member Steve Zimmer said after the vote.

Charter schools are free, publicly funded schools that are independently operated.

They have come under criticism for enrolling a lower percentage of special education students than traditional schools, especially students with more severe handicaps, for whom the cost of schooling is two to three times as high as for other students.

The harshest critics accuse some operators of actively — and perhaps illegally — turning such students away.

L.A. Unified figures suggest an imbalance. About 12% of district students are classified as disabled, but charter schools offer special education services to about 6% of their students.

Last year, the state provided $743 per student — disabled and otherwise at charters and traditional schools — for special education services, which covered only 54% of L.A. Unified's special education costs. The money is handed out based on enrollment, not on the actual number of disabled students.

The board acted Tuesday in response to new state rules. Under the old rules, L.A. Unified has demanded the return of as much as 40% from charter schools. Under the pact between charter schools and L.A. Unified, charters can return 10% to L.A. Unified and keep 90%. They also have the option under new state rules of contracting for cheaper services than they can get through the district.

As a result, 21 L.A. Unified charters have signed up with the El Dorado County Office of Education, which agreed to oversee special education in local charter schools from hundreds of miles away in exchange for a small percentage of state funds. The action infuriated L.A. Unified officials and many advocates for the disabled.

Seventy other charters are considering doing the same.

Charter advocates defend their record. They point out that their schools, which are typically small, cannot provide the range of services available at large schools.

They say that charters, if given the money and the opportunity to combine forces, could provide comprehensive schooling for the disabled.

The new agreement will give them that chance.

Charters will now have two seats on a new, five-member advisory board that will oversee special education in L.A. Unified.

"Our issue has been about flexibility and autonomy and having a voice," said Irene Sumida, executive director of Fenton Avenue Charter School.

If 30,000 charter school students are served under the new pact, the district will lose $5 million a year that it now receives, said Sharyn Howell, the district's executive director of special education. If the charters leave district supervision entirely, the district would lose $7 million, she said.

More than 78,000 local students attend charter schools, about 11% of L.A. Unified's enrollment.

At Tuesday's board meeting, charter advocates showcased well-regarded special education programs at Fenton and Our Community School, both in the San Fernando Valley.

In interviews, charter operators also asserted that district services are sometimes inadequate. About 40% of the disabled students at Locke High had out-of-date education plans or plans that weren't being followed, according to Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot took over Locke High in 2008 and has run a deficit trying to offer a full program for disabled students, officials said.

Special education is not adequately funded either by the state or federal government, said Green Dot chief executive Marco Petruzzi.

"This is a fight for resources amongst the poor," he said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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