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California Task Force Seeks Sweeping Changes to Special Education

Improving the academic outcomes for California students with disabilities will require an extensive revamp of the state's education system,  a task force said Wednesday. Among them: a revision of teacher preparation, support for early learning, and an overhaul of special education financing with an eye to more local control and accountability.

Those recommendations are part of a 100-page report drafted by California's Statewide Task Force on Special Education and submitted to the state board of education. (The task force also released an executive summary of its findings, as well as four subcommittee reports.)

About 613,000 students ages 6 to 21 receive special education services in California, about 10 percent of the nation's total special education population of 5.8 million in that age range. The graduation rate for California students with disabilities is about 60 percent, compared to 80 percent for the student population as a whole. 

The task force was formed in 2013 and was the brainchild of Michael Kirst, the current president of the State Board of Education and a professor emeritus of education and business at Stanford University, and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and the chairwoman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Its work was supported by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation.

Extensive Suggestions

The title of the report is "One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students," and that title offers a glimpse into the philosophical underpinnings of its recommendations. The task force members said that students with special education needs must be considered general education students first, existing in a "coherent system" where all educators have a collective reponsibility to meet their needs. 

But the changes outlined in the report represent more than just a different mindset. They would require schools, districts, teacher colleges, and policymakers to enact some significant changes in their current practice, for example, in the areas of funding or data management. Hardly any element of education policy was left unaddressed by the report, which has recommendations in seven areas: early learning; evidence-based school and classroom practices; educator preparation and professional learning; assessment; accountability; family and student engagement; and special education financing.

So what is the likelihood these changes will happen? In a statement, Vicki L. Barber, the co-executive director of the task force and the former superintendent of the El Dorado County Office of Education, said there was "reason for optimism" because the state is making changes to adapt to more rigorous common standards, and recent changes have already brought more local control in funding

The report has received a positive response from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. In a statement, he said that "effectively educating students with disabilities is our collective responsibility. The bold ideas and recommendations in this report contribute to California's expanded educational mission for high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom." 

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