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Reason Foundation

Special Education Outsourcing in San Diego Charter Schools

Lisa Snell
May 29, 2009, 11:38am

As The Voice of San Diego Reports:

Ten local charter schools want to turn to an office more than 500 miles away in El Dorado County to help them educate children with disabilities using the schools' own staff and strategies, instead of paying San Diego Unified to help meet those needs.

If approved, it will be a groundbreaking step for the charters, which already enjoy freedom over hiring, policies and curriculum but have traditionally been bound to the district when educating kids with Down Syndrome, attention deficit disorder or other disabilities. Their hope is that turning away from the school district will empower them to manage their own special education programs and provide a less expensive, more effective alternative than paying skyrocketing fees to the school district.

Under school district control, special education "is a whole component of your program that you don't even own and operate," said Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. "That is completely antithetical to what the charter school movement is all about."

El Dorado plans to charge the schools much less than they were charged by San Diego Unified, but the charters will also become responsible for providing services and staffers that were previously outsourced to the school district, which had assigned special education staffers to the charter schools and ran the programs. Charter advocates say it has already worked at the High Tech High schools, which partner with an agency in San Bernardino County for special education. It is a classic tradeoff for charter schools -- more autonomy for more responsibility -- and it is loaded with both opportunities and risks.

"Now school districts and counties throughout the state can't hold them hostage -- if that isn't too strong of a term -- when they have an opportunity to look for other options," said Vicki Barber, El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools, whose office would oversee the charters' special education programs.

In addition, the San Diego charter schools suffer from a lack of autonomy over there special education services:

One problem is autonomy. Charter schools pick their own teachers and other employees, but they have less control over which special education staffers they borrow from San Diego Unified, who are evaluated by San Diego Unified, belong to a union in San Diego Unified, and may not share their school philosophy. That can be a problem at schools that expect staffers to work a longer day than at San Diego Unified or use a specific strategy for teaching. Barber said it can also become tricky when schools want to change the way they help special education students, such as opting for team teaching or assistants to help in the classroom.

"We didn't have a role in choosing staff. Parents were complaining that the teachers were temporary," replaced every few months, said Paula Cordeiro, board secretary at Keiller Leadership Academy and a University of San Diego education dean. The school considered joining the El Dorado organization but ultimately decided to stay with San Diego Unified for special education after the district started responding to its concerns and gave it a voice in which special education staffers were assigned to the school. "But a lot of the issues that were raised were taken care of."

Notice that the new provider for special education services is another public school entity that is offering more efficient services for less resources. This gets close to the "shared services" concept where local government bodies could "share" or contract services with a wide range of other government institutions. This introduces competition between government institutions to provide the best service. Why must charter schools partner exclusively with their local school district, thus defeating the purpose of the charter school's autonomy over resources.  Reason looked at shared services here and special education innovations in charter schools here.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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