Oakland’s special education reorganization: a parent’s critique

Stacey Smith is an Oakland school district parent and volunteer who has served on the District GATE Advisory Committee, the school board’s Special Committee on School Based Management, and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. I invited her to contribute periodically to The Education Report; any topic she writes about — including the below piece – does not reflect the view of any group. — Katy

By now you may know that the Oakland school board voted to reinstate $1.75 million in cuts it was asked to approve on June 27. The program specialists still have their jobs, and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education was assured that class sizes and caseloads would not increase and that vacant positions would be filled for 2012-13.

In a press release vetted by high-level special education, finance, and Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction staff that came out late the day before the board meeting, OUSD described the reorganization and the position cuts as something very different than the Sharon Casanares memo I blogged about.

The press release focused on program specialist cuts and additional cuts that would occur and also contained misrepresentations about the program. It said teachers and staff were “versed in the law, theories of learning and disabilities” but not in academic areas, so OUSD had to move students into general education classrooms. This, while so many veteran special education teachers hold general education and special education degrees. This, when the district refuses to accept general education credentialed teachers into their special education credentialing program despite widespread community support for the idea.

Another misrepresentation was that coordinator positions are regularly involved in the development and monitoring of Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, for special education students — and that program specialists don’t currently coach special education staff or consult with site administration. At a recent board meeting, one program specialist after another noted that was not really true.

And resource specialist caseloads! OUSD claims they “range from 25:1 to 28:1″ so under the proposed change to a standard 28:1 ratio caseloads would only “increase by one, two, or three, or not at all.” According to OUSD, increasing caseloads to 28:1 would also be aligning them with what  California Education Code says they should be. The truth is caseloads range from 6:1 to 36:1 (yes, way over legal limits). And the law says the maximum allowable is 28:1, not that it is supposed to be 28:1. The intentional misinterpretation of the law is deeply troubling to me. Caseload is based on individual student need, not some predetermined ratio. Some students need more support than others, and resource specialists provide specialized instruction not available in the general education classroom, not just “support” to general education teachers.

The intentional misinterpretation of the law is deeply troubling to me. Caseload is based on individual student need, not some predetermined ratio. Some students need more support than others, and resource specialists provide specialized instruction not available in the general education classroom, not just “support” to general education teachers.

In addition, the positions that were “vacant due to separations” in the memo, press release and Tony Smith’s report to the board does not mention that many classrooms still have students even if the teacher moves on. If a middle school math teacher left we would replace them, wouldn’t we?

I just read that Tony Smith doesn’t feel he has the support he needs to serve students. I hope that answer didn’t have to do with the board’s vote on special education. If it did, I hope he recognizes that the support he needs is better support from his top level staff. If they had taken the time to engage key stakeholders in a deep examination of how the district serves students with special needs and in real planning and problem-solving, then this would not have happened. The board just did what it was supposed to: question shaky budget proposals.

It’s frustrating because parts of the reorganization proposals were good –- many in the community said as much. The way it happened and the plan as a whole was wrong. Overall, it’s a start. A community engagement process will begin in August and key stakeholders should be involved in decision-making moving forward. It’s going to take time, but this important work deserves that.

Meanwhile, maybe OUSD needs to make hiring dual-credentialed teachers a priority for the next year. Maybe principals need to take a hard look at how their general ed and special ed programs interface. They should examine how professional development and collaboration time is organized and make changes now to benefit special education students more in the coming year.

Maybe the community needs to realize that, when united, it represents a powerful voice for advocacy and that voice is critical if not always welcome. That voice cannot go quiet now. The bonds that were created between teachers, families, program specialists and advocates are part of what will help to ensure planning will succeed –- and, ironically, fulfill part of another strategic plan goal. Everyone holds the responsibility to improve relationships and refocus on the most important shared goal: better outcomes for some of our most vulnerable and at-risk students.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nontcair

    the law says the maximum allowable is 28:1 .. OUSD needs to make hiring dual-credentialed teachers a priority for the next year .. A community engagement process will begin in August and key stakeholders should be involved in decision-making moving forward.

    There’s a LOT more bureaucratic education regulations where these came from! If you dare, click on that link to the Education Code.

    Now what’s this about rating the Superintendent? How could anyone generate anything but mediocre results in the face of the micromanagement known as the “education code”?

  • J.R.

    The laws(which are lobbied by special interest groups and PACS(unions are the heavy hitters in this state)and written and passed(or not) by politicians(micro-managers)with more bribes and contributions from SIG’s. In short, laws are not always enacted for the right reasons(just the most profitable.

  • J.R.

    oops forgot to add this…..


  • makeitgoaway

    first, I am a fan of special education teachers, but mainstreaming some kids should be a priority to ease their transition into the world, and should not be seen as inherently evil. Special education is increasingly expensive and I can’t blame OUSD for trying to cut costs, as all school districts are suffering. It was clear from the previous article that an accounting error resulted in economic disaster. Was anyone ever fired for this Katy?

  • Nextset

    The Special Ed kids I have seen are probably not going to live very long. Mainstreaming them accelerates the process of drugs, sex and rock & roll. It can also hasten their deaths.

    The people I’m thinking about are probably a subset of SE kids. I think of them as drug babies – They have major mental disorders usually attempted to control by psychotropics. Their death process begins when they hit puberty and reach the age where somebody tells them they really can do what they want. By the time they are 18 their parent completely loses the legal ability to protect them from themselves – usually that point starts to creep in by 16. The Brave New World seems to believe they have the right to a sex life as a minor. Sex typically involved getting real high. Girls seems to start getting beaten by their lovers during the mid teen years. It must make the sex better because they don’t want to leave those lovers.

    So be careful when you gush about mainstreaming and easing their way into the world. For some of the SE babies, this is what is going to happen to them. It’s more likely to happen when they “mainstream” early. They are very ripe for predation then.

    Brave New World!

  • Sue

    Funny old Nextset. You picked your subset of SE kids, and they have bad outcomes. I pick a different set – the one my son belongs to – and I see really great outcomes from mainstreaming early.

    My suggestion would be that more of the SE services follow the model of the ASIP (Autism Spectrum Inclusion Program) programs. It seems to be working really, really well.

    I don’t have the 2011 or 2012 graduation and college admission rates, but in 2010, when my son graduated high school on time, so did all of his ASIP peers, and *all* of them went to college in the fall. Same for the first class that started with ASIP, and graduated in 2009 – 100% on-time graduation, and 100% starting college.

    Some SE services are working. It’s just a matter of looking for the successes, or of looking for the failures.

  • Nextset

    Sue: Good to see you again!

    I’m not saying that SE doesn’t have a good purpose. I am saying that SE is being used to have the schools manage an at-risk population with short life expectancies in many cases.

    I see drug babies…

    It’s more than a notion to be responsibility for many of these kids and they are typically not college material in the extreme.

    Vocational planning is their only hope to avoid wretched and short lives.

    As far as your Autism kids – Who does your district have the most of, Autism or Drug Babies?

    Mainstreaming is fine for those families that want it and can benefit from it. Mainstreaming is not in the cards for many SE kids – other than in the context of Vocational Placement at McDonalds, Wal*Mart or wherever. Some kind of supervision is needed long term for the kids I see in the courts. We just transition them to Regional Services, Mental Health Court, Adult group homes and the like.

  • J.R.

    As the father of a special ed child(Autism)we’re missing an important component of the financial and practical problems. The law “IDEA” is far too vague, and there are far too many kids who are anti-social, violent,mentally ill, who are potentially dangerous in some of these classes. There are “fish” in these classes, and then there are “sharks”. The whole problem is that SPED is underfunded and overburdened with children who most definitely need a different type of help altogether and should not be in this program. The school districts are being inundated with this problem.


  • Nextset

    Typos! Sorry…

  • Special Ed

    Sue: Thanks for pointing to the need for additional well-coordinated and supported inclusion programs like some of the ones that exist in OUSD. Sadly, that type of program is not what OUSD had in mind in their re-structuring plan. Such a program requires great coordination led by a specialist for a relatively small group of students at a site and an adequate paraprofessional support team.

    What is being proposed is “mainstreaming” to be overseen by a Resource Specialist with 28+ kids spread over multiple sites and a freeze on hiring aides + the Resource Specialist taking on additional Gen Ed children who need support while she or he coaches the entire site(s) on how to be more responsive to Children with Special Needs. This explains why OUSD is using the terms “mainstreaming” and “inclusion” interchangeably. It really doesn’t know what it takes to support meaningful inclusion in the classroom. It is also putting the weight of capacity building on Special Ed staff who already struggle to meet the needs of the children that they serve.

    It is important to note that some children do benefit from specialized classrooms and settings (mine included) and that the degree and nature of participation in General Education varies in response to the real needs of particular children. The law mandates a continuum of placements for a reason.

    Finally, let’s not forget that OUSD proposed to make all of these changes over 2 months during the summer, with a new Director coming halfway through it, after laying off all Program Specialists, and before hiring the reduced number of Specialists that would supposedly oversee the entire “reform.”

    For an interesting article about Special Ed cuts scantily dressed as reforms in other districts see,


  • Teaches at Oakland School

    Sue, all the seniors in the Skyline ASIP program graduated this year, all with GPAs over 3.00 and are going on to colleges. They couldn’t have done it without the support of the teachers in the ASIP program.