The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now known as NCLB, was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives in the mid-1960s that were aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice.
But it wasn't until a decade later that U.S. Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation required states to pay special attention to the education of students with disabilities and English learners.
Special Education is California's largest state categorical program in terms of dollars, and the second largest federal program. For a variety of reasons, Special Education funding can be quite complicated and is often seen as operating outside of the regular school finance system.
About 11% of students in California receive Special Education services, and those services are paid for through a combination of federal, state, and local funding sources. The overarching obligations related to Special Education leave school districts with very limited flexibility in terms of the services they must provide and thus the costs they incur.
Districts have a legal obligation to provide services
A series of court rulings, plus both federal and state law, obligate school districts to provide special services to students with exceptional needs. They have also established procedural rights for both parents and children. The following laws and court decisions give a sense of how the law has evolved over time.
Larry P. v. Riles (1972)
The California Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that using IQ tests to place children in Special Education violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the tests were culturally biased. The ruling also expanded the rights of parents of Special Education children. The court mandated that parents be notified of their child's placement in Special Education and made aware of specific education plans for their children that were based on a multidisciplinary assessment. Parents are also entitled to a hearing if they disagree with the education plans created by their child's school.
Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973
This federal law prohibits discrimination against an otherwise qualified individual based solely on that person's disability. This applies to all programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance or conducted by any executive agency or by the U.S. Postal Service. Public education agencies are further required to identify and evaluate children with disabilities and provide them with a free and appropriate public education. In order to determine if a student is eligible for Special Education services, a school site committee must convene and evaluate relevant information about the student. If the committee determines the student is eligible, it must develop a written accommodation plan for the student describing the services to be provided. Parents and/or guardians are invited to participate and are notified in writing of the final accommodation plan that is determined. Under this act, parents also have the right to request a due-process hearing if they disagree with the school site committee's recommendation.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (first enacted in 1975, reauthorized periodically)
IDEA was a reauthorization of the federal Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (PL 94-142). This law guarantees children with exceptional needs a free and appropriate public education and requires that each child's education be determined on an individual basis and be designed to meet his or her unique needs in the least restrictive environment. It also establishes procedural rights for parents and children. In the 1997 reauthorization, additional requirements were added to the federal law. These include: (1) regular progress reports to parents, (2) including children with disabilities in state and district assessments to the degree possible, and (3) specifying that regular teachers be a part of the team that develops each child's Individual Education Program (IEP). Congressional reauthorization, which included some additional changes to the law, last occurred in 2004.
California's Master Plan for Special Education (1981)
Master Plan for Special Education (MPSE) (California Senate Bill 1870, 1980)
California's statewide Master Plan for Special Education (MPSE) was passed in response to federal court rulings. Similar to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), MPSE ensures that all California children with exceptional needs from infancy to age 22 receive a free and appropriate public education. Under this law, districts must locate and evaluate all disabled children and educate them in regular classes when suitable or in the "least restrictive environment." Parents are included in developing an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) that describes the types of Special Education services for the student.
Back to Top
Special Education Reform Act (California Assembly Bill 602, 1997)
In 1997 California legislators passed Assembly Bill 602, which changed the state's funding structure for Special Education from one based on a per-qualifying-pupil calculation to a population-based method. Under this law, Special Education funds are allocated according to the total student population in a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) rather than on the number of identified Special Education students. The individual SELPAs are then responsible for allocating funds for the services provided by the districts to the individual students.
This legislation maintains the existing due-process safeguards, which guarantee and protect the rights of parents and students. It also keeps the existing requirement that Special Education funding be used solely for Special Education services. Expenditures for Special Education programs remain subject to state audit under this law.
Funds for Special Education are distributed through regional SELPAs
The state provides a minimum basic Special Education allocation based on a per-pupil amount for a district's entire student population (using average daily attendance (ADA) as the student count). The funds for Special Education services are distributed to districts through Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs). Some SELPAs are a single school district, some are consortiums of several districts, and some represent only a portion of a school district. Under certain circumstances, charter schools are also part of a SELPA.
The members of the SELPA agree on how the required services will be provided and how much each district will receive based on the programs it operates and the students it serves. The state and federal funding provided to the SELPA does not cover the full cost of educating students with disabilities. Local school districts are expected to provide their share. In practice that means they must come up with the full difference between the state and federal funds and the actual cost of services. For certain students, and in certain situations, these can be quite dramatic and sometimes difficult to plan for.
The cost per student varies with the disability
The disabilities that qualify a student for Special Education vary widely, from a mild speech or learning disability to conditions that require specialized, individual care that goes well beyond classroom instruction. About half of students enrolled in Special Education have a learning disability, and another quarter have a speech or language impairment. These conditions qualify a student for extra assistance but, in general, have a moderate impact on the cost of education. Much more dramatic are the costs of educating the other quarter of students with more serious disabilities, including mental retardation; visual, orthopedic, or other health impairments; emotional disturbance; loss of hearing and/or sight; traumatic brain injuries; or multiple disabilities.
Lau v. Nichols and NCLB
A 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lau v. Nichols, established the educational rights of English learners. The court unanimously ruled that districts must address the linguistic deficiencies of language minorities, overturning lower court decisions that had absolved San Francisco Unified School District from having to offer special help to its Chinese-speaking students. But the court did not suggest a specific approach to remedy the language deficiency.
NCLB also supports English learners (ELs). Title III provides grants
to districts serving limited English proficient and immigrant students
and requires grantees to monitor ELs' progress toward English fluency.
California has set benchmarks—called annual measurable achievement
objectives (AMAOs)—for ELs in three areas. The first two pertain to
progressing toward and attaining English proficiency as measured by
students' results on the California English Language Development Test
(CELDT). The third area is the annual measurable objective (AMO) used
to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB.
Under NCLB, the state must report test results for the EL subgroup statewide and for each school with a significant number of EL students. Further, the achievement goals for ELs must be the same as for students overall. (However, when states calculate the percent of students scoring proficient, they do not have to include the scores of ELs in their first year of enrollment in U.S. schools.) In addition, states are expected to develop standards-based tests in students' native languages to the extent practicable, though California has yet to do so.