Students in special education should be included in general education classes as much as possible, according to the PACE report. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

Special education in California should be overhauled to focus on the individual needs of students, with better training for teachers, more streamlined services and improved screening for the youngest children, according to a compilation of reports released Tuesday.

Those were some of the recommendations proposed in “Special Education: Organizing Schools to Serve Students with Disabilities in California,” a package of 13 reports and a summary produced by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research and policy organization led by faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC and Stanford University.

“By almost every indicator you look at, special education in California is in dire need of improvement,” said Heather Hough, PACE’s executive director. “We need to rethink the way we organize schools, so students with disabilities are at the center and not at the fringes.”

The research papers looked at dozens of ways to improve special education, including how to recruit and train teachers, better ways for schools and other agencies to coordinate services for disabled young people and how schools can help special education students with career and college planning.

Funding shortfalls are a major concern in special education, especially as the number of students in special education increases, but the report did not look closely at financial matters because that topic was partly addressed in a recent PACE report called Getting Down to Facts, Hough said. In addition, West Ed, a consulting firm, is working on a separate report on special education funding in California, she said.

Researchers praised districts such as Sanger Unified in the Central Valley and the Orange County Office of Education that are already taking steps to improve special education services and can serve as models for the rest of the state.

Their recommendations come after years of concern about the state of special education in California, which currently serves more than 725,000 children with a range of physical and intellectual impairments, including autism and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia.

In his proposed budget last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom described the state’s special education system as “a crisis.”

“I try not to use that word or overuse that word, but it’s a crisis and it’s a real shame,” he said.

State funding proposals

Newsom is proposing a “three-phase, multi-year process to improve special education finance, services and student outcomes.” This includes a new formula for allocating special education funds and increasing funding for special education by $250 million on top of last year’s increase million of $645 million.

Last year, almost 1 in 8 California students in K-12 schools were in special education, an increase of almost 14 percent from 2014-15. Much of the increase is due to more diagnoses of autism, although the majority of students overall in special education have learning disabilities.

Some parents are not happy with the state of special education, either. California’s rate of parent complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, for a school’s alleged violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is triple the national average, according to federal researchcited in the report.

Although many parents say individual teachers are dedicated, compassionate and hard-working, the system itself is confusing and uneven, especially for families who are low-income or whose first language is not English.

According to the report, in general the state should do more to integrate special education with K-12 education for non-disabled students, which researchers refer to as “general education.”

The academic and social-emotional needs of special education students should be weighed equally with those of non-disabled students. And all students benefit when schools address students’ individual talents and challenges, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, Hough said.

More trained teachers needed

The report also emphasizes the importance of teaching, especially the need to train general education teachers in how to address the needs of disabled students. This issue is increasingly important as more disabled students are included in regular classrooms.

“We don’t have enough adults in schools generally, and the adults we do have aren’t always adequately trained to address students with special needs,” Hough said. “If inclusion is the goal, that means general education teachers need to know how to teach students with disabilities.”

Several of the reports focus on the importance of early childhood screening for disabilities, which can help children’s development and long-term outcomes, according to the research.

Most of the PACE recommendations hinge on funding, a major obstacle for schools trying to improve their services for disabled students. Districts’ costs are rising as the number of disabled students increases, along with the number of students with severe disabilities, according to the research.

“The costs for districts are escalating, while revenues are not,” Hough said. “Districts are forced to make some really tough decisions.”

* Interested in hearing from PACE researchers directly? Sign up for a three-part webinar on the series examining the research and recommendations to improve special education. The first webinar is scheduled for 1 to 2 p.m., Feb. 27.

Story originally published by EdSource.