Misinformation About California’s Special Education Systems and Enrollment Trends Won’t Help the Fiscal Crisis

Many California school districts are in financial trouble. Teacher pensions consume an increasing share of K-12 spending, and inflexible collective bargaining agreements and declining enrollments stretch district budgets.

In this strained financial environment, some of the complexity of California’s school finance system is lost, leading to simplified analyses and incomplete solutions. Addressing the financial shortfall requires a comprehensive understanding of the many different ways funding works in the state.

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To that end, we released new issue briefs yesterday that provide needed context and clarity on important issues in the state: special education financing and school enrollment trends and facilities. These issues have become part of the financial policy debate, but there are misunderstandings that unnecessarily fan the flames of tension between traditional and charter schools. For example, misleading analyses of enrollment trends and their impact on district finances make it more difficult to accurately assess facilities needs for districts and charter schools. And, since charter schools often enroll fewer students with disabilities, many can mistakenly believe that they are not contributing their share to special education.

But this isn’t quite right. Our hope is that a sober examination of these systems will point to reforms that can help schools of all types better serve students.

The first brief looks at how declining enrollment in California’s large urban districts creates excess facility capacity that districts must pay to maintain, while charter schools in the same areas often struggle to find affordable facilities. The state has policies on the books to leverage capacity in public school buildings on behalf of charter schools and in service of all public school students, but these policies are not as effective as they can be. This is an area ripe for better collaboration between district and charters, and the state can start by collecting data on public school facilities and making them transparent for stakeholders and the public.

The second brief examines how charter schools and traditional schools alike contribute financially to the provision of special education services, even for students they do not serve. Because of the state’s governance structures, special education is a shared responsibility and a collaborative undertaking between charters and districts. Understanding how this complex system works is critical to better serving students with disabilities and removing barriers to more effective cross-sector cooperation.

California’s special education and school facilities finance systems are complex and can be easily misunderstood. We hope these papers will clarify how the systems function and how traditional and charter schools interact with them. Through collaboration — rather than division — there is much to be gained on behalf of the Golden State’s public school children.

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