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Los Angeles Still Struggles to Serve Students With Disabilities

The latest progress report on Los Angeles' ability to serve its students with disabilities shows the district is making headway in some areas, but it is still falling short of a 6-year-old target for providing services as frequently and for as long as special education students need them.

In the report, issued last week, the district's independent monitor noted that the district was to have provided—by 2006—93 percent of the services for students with disabilities. That target was the result of a federal court case resolved in 2003. The district has largely reached that target, though intermittently.

But another goal set in the court case was that the district would provide 85 percent of those services for the duration and frequency specified by students' education plans. For example, a student might require three one-hour sessions of speech therapy each week.

While the district has come a long way, it still falls short of this second goal, said the monitor, special education expert Frederick J. Weintraub. About 83.5 percent of students received the correct number of service sessions, but only 70 percent got those services for the amount of time their educational plans say they should, the report said.

While some of the shortfall might be attributed to inaccurate record-keeping, therapists and other service providers said that making up missed sessions is sometimes a challenge because of paperwork, meetings, the district's electronic monitoring system for tracking services, and scheduled school events, such as testing or school assemblies, the report said. Some providers simply aim to provide a certain amount of services each month or year for their own flexibility.(Does this serve the students though? Advocates, experts, please weigh in.)

Mr. Weintraub was appointed as a monitor because of a federal court settlement, and must stay on until Los Angeles meets all the goals it set out to achieve. Next school year, the district will study its own capacity to monitor whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need, he said in the report.

"The [independent monitor] has repeatedly stated that service provision is the cornerstone of [a free, appropriate public education] and substantial compliance. As this consent decree nears completion, the District must demonstrate the ability to deliver services and comply with the service requirements of the IEP," he said in the report.

Mr. Weintraub did find that while about 94 percent of kids with disabilities receive services—at least one session of any of the services they may be entitled to in a given eight-week period—but he also found 400 cases in which there was no evidence students were served at all in eight-week period. Some of this was because of the district's tracking system.

One high point: the monitor found that Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, now has enough well-qualified special education teachers to meet its needs. A decade ago, it had enough to meet only 70 percent of its needs, and now that figure has risen to 96 percent. The district has also made progress in reducing the disproportionate identification of black students as having an emotional disturbances, and in remodeling and upgrading facilities to make them accessible to students with disabilities.

There's been some progress on yet another lingering issue: whether charter schools are screening students for disabilities. (Los Angeles isn't unique in having some version of this issue.) The monitor found that in June, 28 charter schools continued to ask parents to provide information related to special education. "While this is a substantial decrease from the past two years, this finding is evidence of the district's inability to provide rigorous oversight of its independent charter schools," the report said.

The district must review charter school applications again in December.

Still, overall enrollment of students with disabilities at charter schools continues to climb, the monitor found.

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