By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In a sweeping rebuke, a Los Angeles federal judge has rejected the city school district‘s attempt to retake control over programs for students with disabilities. At stake are services for 83,000 students -- about 12 percent of district enrollment -- and district funds totaling $1.1 billion.
The district had lost full authority over its special-education division in 1996, as a condition for settling a lawsuit filed on behalf of Chanda Smith and thousands of other disabled students by a consortium of attorneys. The settlement became known as the Chanda Smith Consent Decree, and it established a court-monitored reform process. At the time, it was hailed as a landmark achievement. Now the school district wants out.
For Superintendent Roy Romer, the court challenge was an unabashed gambit consistent with his style of wanting to be the manager in charge. If he’d prevailed, he‘d have obtained control of a billion-dollar program, with the chance to use some of that money for other district priorities. Advocates for the disabled, some of whom are paid by consent-decree funds, were wary of this possibility. They contend that Romer’s administration has undermined special-ed reforms already in place.
The school district filed court papers seeking to end or amend the decree on August 15, and from the start, the arguments on both sides embodied a strange backward quality. The advocates -- who include lawyers, parents and volunteers -- typically claim that district services are deficient, because the advocates are trying to help students seek better or different placements. This time they found themselves changing tack, by filing declarations portraying progress -- more disabled students are learning successfully in regular classrooms; more of them get proper education plans, and in a more timely manner. The students they represent encompass a broad range of disabilities -- from mental to physical handicaps, from speech problems to severe autism. Things had been getting better, said advocates, until last March, when the district stopped cooperating.
Conversely, the school district contended in court papers that it did a poor job of educating disabled students -- for which LAUSD blamed the consent decree, which it characterized as cumbersome, expensive and ineffective. Officials insisted that meaningful parent input has been routinely ignored, while at another level, parents became an obstacle -- by serving on committees that dictated edicts to district staff.
“Parents are a valuable resource,” said district General Counsel Hal Kwalwasser, “but they are not there to tell us how to recruit teachers, how to prepare evacuation plans for our buses, how to draft a funding statement for the state. These parent committees want to do all of that.”
The program guidelines that resulted, he said, were complicated, internally contradictory, and even at odds with state and federal law, which, broadly speaking, mandates that disabled children receive a free and appropriate public education. One result is that principals and teachers have focused on checklists and paperwork at the expense of helping students.
“The committees at times mandated solutions regardless of cost, even where other solutions that were less expensive and burdensome would have worked,” added Kwalwasser. “Management by committee is fundamentally dysfunctional. It is not the way anybody in any business school in America would say that you manage a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.”
This analysis couldn‘t be more wrong-headed, in the view of attorney Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is a party to the consent decree. “What the experts found five years ago is that parents had not been part of the process. They were not informed of their rights, nor were their views of concern to the district.” The district wants to gut accountability, he added. No longer would parents and advocates help develop procedures, review programs and field complaints. Without that, he said, nothing would stop the district from returning to its bad old ways.
Chanda Smith herself was a district student with a treatable learning disorder that was never adequately treated, despite her mother’s requests for help. As a result, she reached high school with second-grade skills.
“When the district complains about money being spent for psychologists and curricular materials,” added Rosenbaum, “it is pitting special education against general education in a zero-sum equation that is counterproductive. There has certainly been an increase in spending due to the consent decree, but that is ultimately because the district was not treating these kids equally. All this decree is saying is that the district must come into compliance with the law.”
U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew sided with the advocates. If the district doesn‘t like something, he wrote in this week’s ruling, the decree itself has due process for addressing the issue.
Soon after taking the district helm in July 2000, Romer commented in an address to administrators, “You do a lot of paperwork that I think is nonsense. Now I really mean that. And we‘ve got to change it. A lot of it’s legal, by the law. Some of it‘s a court decree. But we’ve got to fight it. We‘ve got to change it, and we can.”
He added, “Chanda Smith, I’m learning about this. I thought it was some form of worship. I thought it was a new god for a while. When I was a kid, I got some of my entertainment watching the evangelicals from Southern California on television . . . Let me say, I respect the thing they‘re after, and that is we haven’t done a good job, and we know that. We need to do that. But we can‘t get all this micro-management. It reminds me of Gulliver and the Lilliputians. Got all these ropes on you. We’ve got to get some of those ropes off.”
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