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The $68,000 School Bus Ride

In traditional Los Angeles public schools, about 13 percent of students have a disability. In the district's 180 charter schools, only about 8 percent of students have special needs.

Why the difference? Because charter schools, for years, either didn't have the resources and knowledge to serve students with special needs, or they didn't want to, said Sharyn Howell, who oversees special education in the district.

That resulted, too often, in situations like this one: A blind 12th grader who moved into the district was told she couldn't enroll at her neighborhood high school, a charter, which accepted her brother. As the district and charter waged war over the girl's placement, the district spent $68,000 to bus her to a district-run school two hours away that could meet her educational needs. Ms. Howell related the example during a discussion about charter schools and students with disabilities at the Council on Exceptional Children's annual convention in National Harbor, Md., on Tuesday.

"She was the only student on the bus," Ms. Howell said. "No one can afford programs like that."

She said the district has a new attitude and a new approach now—one she hopes will prevent a situation like the expensive transfer of the blind student from ever being repeated.

The district has sent letters to parents of students with disabilities listing charter schools—and noting their children's rights to attend them. They have created a survey for parents asking why they chose to stop sending their children to a charter school. The district has developed a memorandum of understanding with charter schools regarding their special education obligations, and, using federal stimulus money, the district now provides training and resources about special education to charter teachers and staff. Charters also are encouraged to band together and pool resources so they can meet the needs of several students with disabilities with similar needs.

"We hear over and over again [from charter schools] 'We can't serve your child'," said Deneen Cox, assistant general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "That's what you can't say," charters are told.

Before charters are opened, they now receive demographic information about the students in the neighborhood they would serve, alerting them to unique accommodations they may be charged with making.

"Schools of choice are wonderful if everyone has a choice" to attend, Ms. Cox said.

The changes can't overcome some of the inherent difficulties of serving children with disabilities in L.A. While many states provide extra money based on a child's needs, in California, money for special education students is built into the allocation for every student. An individual school gets the same amount of money to teach children whether they have 100 special education students or zero, Ms. Howell said. But the district now offers charters the option to buy packages of services they would have difficulty providing on their own, such as those of a speech pathologist or physical therapist, so charters aren't so hesitant to take students with those needs.

It will take time to see a significant shift in charters' acceptance and accommodation of students with disabilities. But without it, along with other changes, the district can't get out from under more than a decade of special monitoring of its special education services, because the oversight was triggered by the need for systemic change.

One step toward that change is elimination of $68,000 school bus rides.

In three to five years, Ms. Howell said, "we should see a big change on how students are served and where students are served."

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