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L.A. parents criticize pending special ed cutbacks [Updated]

April 29, 2010 |  3:39 pm

The effect of looming budget cuts on disabled students dominated a Thursday morning hearing at the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

About 200 parents attended the morning portion of an annual hearing required under a 1995 legal settlement over deficiencies in the district’s special education services. The purpose is to help inform an independent monitor who tracks district progress. Over time, he’s reported inconsistent but measurable steps forward.

Testimony on Thursday, however, suggested that budget pressures threaten to turn back the clock. The district has had to offset a $640-million deficit for next year.

“I did see a little bit of change, but things are right back where they were,” said Janeen Steel, who directs the Los Angeles-based Learning Rights Law Center. Steel said that problems included diminished services for children ages 3 to 5. She charged that some high school administrators, who are unable or unwilling to work with academically lagging disabled students, have been pushing them out of regular schools into adjunct continuation schools.

Parent Amelia D. Herrera-Robles worried about the expected consolidation of classes in the San Fernando Valley, which would result in special education children attending larger classes farther away with different teachers. She praised the instructors at her children's current school, Van Gogh Elementary in Granada Hills, as “just fantastic.”

L.A. Unified offers varied services to disabled children, including classes addressing particular disabilities, extra help that allows many students to remain in regular classes and, in some cases, tuition for private schools. Disabled students are legally entitled to a free and “appropriate” education through an individualized program developed with parental approval.

But advocate Lori Lowenthal said she’s increasingly noticed an inflexibility that is probably exacerbated by budget woes.

“The district’s position is: ‘This is the program we’re offering. Take it or leave it,’ ” Lowenthal said.

The morning’s star power came from actor Edward Asner, whose grandchild relies on L.A. Unified special education services. He said students were at risk of being relegated to “a barebones education that essentially dooms their future.” He added: “Moving down this dangerous path will doom many of these children to prisons and homes costing much more money than the education that we have promised them.”
Independent monitor Frederick Weintraub referred a number of parents to district staff to see if, in fact, their issues could be resolved. But his questions also made it clear that he is looking for evidence of district backsliding.

Among the cuts confirmed by district officials is a general across-the-board increase in the size of classes for the disabled. The increase works out to about two students per class, they said. And officials have planned to close the West Valley Special Education Center.

[Updated at 5:05 p.m.: A senior district official revised a prior district analysis late Thursday afternoon, saying that class sizes would increase by one student rather than two. Parents at the hearing reported that their children’s teachers have told them to expect significantly larger classes.]

In a recent letter to the parent of a disabled student, L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines lamented widespread cutbacks that he said will affect all students and district employees.

“I do not believe that class size should be raised or classes should be closed,” he wrote.  “However, we have to be realistic and consider the economic condition that the district finds itself in and acknowledge the lack of economic support the school district is receiving from the state.”

-- Howard Blume