• Molly Watson

Report Finds California Schools Ill Equipped to Serve Students with Special Needs

Updated: 6 days ago

Approximately 725,000 children in California qualify for K-12 special education services. A policy report issued in February 2020 by PACE, a nonpartisan policy research group, found that special education in California should be overhauled to better serve the unique needs of these children.

PACE Research Results Show California Need to Improve in several areas

The PACE policy research panel, comprised of leading researchers, policymakers and practitioners developed the report: Special Education: Organizing Schools to Serve Students with Disabilities with the goal of consolidating knowledge on how best to serve students with disabilities.

The results of the research by PACE identified five problem areas related to the delivery of special education in California:

  1. Under identification of students needing services,

  2. Low inclusion rates of students with special needs in general education classrooms with their non-disabled peers,

  3. Underprepared general education and special education teachers to serve children with disabilities,

  4. Inadequate mental health and other services,

  5. Lack of attention to post-secondary transitions.

These five problem areas of special education delivery are summarized below:

Early Identification and Intervention Improves Outcomes

The report points out that research has demonstrated that the early identification and intervention for infants and toddlers with developmental delays lessens the adverse developmental effects and reduces costs of children repeating grades, lower juvenile justice costs. Despite this research, California continues to fall below national averages in identifying and serving infants and toddlers with disabilities. According to the report, African American students who are low performing in reading and math are identified at a lower rate than white students.

Inclusion Rate of Children with Disabilities in California is Low

The inclusion rate of students with disabilities is "an important predictor of positive outcomes. Students with disabilities who spend at least 80 percent of the school day in a general education classroom have fewer absences; higher academic performance; higher rates of grade progression and on-time graduation; and higher rates of college attendance and employment."

However, despite the benefits of including children with disabilities in the general education classroom, California has one of the lowest inclusion rates in the country.

Teachers in California are Under Prepared to Teach Children with Disabilities

California is facing an acute shortage of credentialed special education teachers. Special education teachers often begin active teaching prior to finishing their teacher training. This means that the students with the greatest needs are being educated by teachers who are not fully prepared. Many of these new recruits leave teaching before they are fully prepared to teach.

Adding to the shortage is that recruiting and retaining special education teachers has become a challenge for school districts due to the poor working conditions. The case load for California Special teachers--often at 28 students and sometimes exceeding 32-- is well above the national average.

General education teachers feel overwhelmed by the prospect of teaching children with special needs in the general education classroom. The report concludes this is likely a combination of insufficient preparation and lack of support. With the second highest teacher-student ratio in the nation, and fewer classroom supports, California teachers

Mental Heath and Other Health Services are Lacking

Students who receive special education can benefit greatly from mental health and physical health services. Despite this fact, according to the report, California ranks near or at the bottom as compared with states across the nation, in access to mental healthcare provided at school.

Schools Often Fail to Successfully Support Post Secondary Transition Children with Special Needs

The Report points out that a fundamental purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is to prepare children with disabilities for further education, employment and independent living. However, the unemployment rate of individuals with disabilities continues to be much higher than that of their non disabled counterparts in the work force. The report concludes that this discrepancy is compounded by the lack of workforce preparation in school programs.

To Address These Problems the Report Recommends the following:

  1. Provide more attention and resources to support California's multi-tiered system of supports that address students' academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs.

  2. To limit confusion about transitions, provide more information to parents and service providers regarding transitions into and out of special education services and transitions among schools and programs.

  3. Establish positive expectations for educators about inclusion.

  4. Provide general education and special education teachers with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of children with disabilities in an inclusive general education environment.

  5. Foster collaboration between schools and the various agencies, including agencies that provide mental health or physical health services to children with special needs.

The report concludes that although California is taking steps to enact many of the recommendations in this report, the path toward meaningful improvement will require substantial systematic investment in the delivery of special education services.

Education Attorney Molly Watson

Serving children with disabilities in California

Call us at 530-273-2740

Or email us at

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Roseville, California
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Sacramento, California
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Oakland, California
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