After failing for the eighth straight year to meet service delivery targets for special education, Los Angeles Unified School District has begun interviewing staff to understand why records indicate thousands of students with disabilities are not receiving their prescribed services.
The effort, led by the district's Office of the Independent Monitor, seeks to determine whether the shortcomings are due to documentation problems, actual failures to serve students or both. Jaime Hernandez, the office's research director, said the goal to show a student received any service was "really a very low bar to meet."
"We would have expected some more progress," said Hernandez, who believes the problem is likely both bad data and lack of services.
Attorneys who represent special education students and their families said many children with special needs receive few or no services and that the true service delivery rate in LA Unified, which enrolled more than 82,000 special education students in 2010-11, could be worse than records show.
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"My guess is about 60 percent of services are being delivered," said Valerie Vanaman, an attorney with Newman Aaronson Vanaman, a Los Angeles firm that joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a 1993 class-action lawsuit that led to independent oversight of LA Unified's special education program.
Under the terms of the lawsuit's "modified consent decree" – a settlement enforced by court order – the independent monitor tracks the district's progress toward 18 goals designed to bring the district into compliance with federal special education law. The goals were supposed to be achieved in 2006. The district has met all but three, including delivery of special education services.
To meet the service delivery target, the district must show 93 percent of special education students receive service at least once in an eight-week study period. It reached 91 percent for students with a specific learning disability and 95 percent for those with other disabilities in 2010-11.
LA Unified also seeks to have 85 percent of its services meet the frequency and duration prescribed in a student's individualized education plan, also known as an IEP. An IEP is a federally mandated document that identifies a student's disability, sets goals and guides related services. In 2010-11, 82 percent of services were delivered as frequently as prescribed and 69 percent for the required length of time.
The independent monitor in April published focus group findings [PDF] to begin identifying areas to study for next year's service delivery report.
The participants – 39 special education managers, supervisors, providers and information technology staff – said inaccurate or lack of documentation, a buggy web-based software system used to monitor and track IEPs and services, and other demands of their jobs, such as more and longer IEP meetings, were challenging their ability to meet service requirements.
Beginning this month, the independent monitor will send surveys to all the district's special education providers to better understand service delivery roadblocks. Hernandez said he anticipates the results, to be published in October, will indicate problems similar to those found by focus groups.
The district also plans this month to assemble a working group of 12 to 15 providers, particularly resource specialist teachers, to begin a deeper examination of service delivery challenges, said Sharyn Howell, executive director of the district's special education division.
Howell said she believes providers "are probably giving far more service than is showing up on this tracking system." Still, she said, there probably are some special education students who really are not receiving services. Staffing shortages and caseloads that must juggle different student schedules make it difficult to serve all students as prescribed, she said.
"It is difficult to keep fully staffed, there's no doubt about that," Howell said, noting that LA Unified contracts with many private agencies to provide services. "There's not enough speech and language specialists coming out of universities to adequately staff all of us, not enough occupational therapists or physical therapists."
The district has no substitutes for any of its providers, with the exception of adapted physical education providers, site-based resource specialist teachers and contractors from private agencies. One supervisor in the focus groups said 15 schools did not have an assigned occupational therapist because 15 providers were on maternity leave.
In such instances, if no providers can be hired or contracted and caseloads cannot be redistributed among existing staff, students are provided compensatory services another time, such as after school or over the summer, Howell said.
To meet special education service needs, the district over the last few years has increasingly allowed IEPs to prescribe broader ranges of service frequency. So, for example, instead of an IEP calling for one hour of speech therapy a week, it may prescribe four hours over a month.
"We're trying to provide flexibility so staff can actually implement services for the students, even if a day is missed for some reason – like say a student is on a field trip or something – there's a flexibility for someone to give those services," Howell said.
Services must still be offered in a timely manner, Howell said, noting that the district has not had problems with providers waiting until the end of the year to give services.
But attorneys for special education students worry that using broader ranges for service frequency undermines services' effectiveness.
"We think it actually has a bad effect," said Maronel Barajas, a senior staff attorney with the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles. "What's clear when I speak with the different providers … (is) the best practice is for them to be delivering (services) on a weekly basis."
Vanaman said LA Unified's flexible service prescriptions are an outgrowth of the modified consent decree's compliance demands rather than a true effort to meet the needs of students.
"What they're trying to do is reduce services so they can look like they're more in compliance, and they've found a clever way to do it," she said. "And it's tragedy."
Howell said the district's use of broader ranges for service frequency was a response to provider feedback.
"The providers years ago felt that it gave them more flexibility," she said. "Over time you have to go back and look at things again. This is an opportunity for us to go back and look. Are the ranges the most effective way or not? If not, then we'll change it."