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In Wake of Suit, L.A. Moves To Revamp Spec.-Ed. System

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The Los Angeles school district has set out to revamp the way it goes about providing special education. But it has not done so without a push.

In an effort to settle a 1993 class action, the school board last month approved a sweeping consent decree that would overhaul everything from how special-education students are identified and tracked to where they are educated. But the agreement, which passed by a 5-1 vote with one member abstaining, still has a considerable way to travel before it wins final approval from the board and the federal judge overseeing the case.

And critics already are raising questions about the feasibility of the plan, especially how the district plans to pay for it. The reforms have no price tag at this point.

District officials are sure to hear from such naysayers when they hold public hearings on the proposal at the end of this month.

Los Angeles joins the ranks of Baltimore, Boston, New York, and other big-city districts to be hit with major lawsuits in the complex and highly regulated area of special education. But Los Angeles school officials say they want to avoid the protracted litigation some cities have found themselves in by admitting the system's problems and working to correct them.

Complainants in the case say they hope the visibility of filing suit against Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school system, will put other districts on notice. Roughly 65,000 students, or 10 percent of the district's total enrollment of 649,000, receive special-education services.

"This should serve as a wake-up call to others," said Mark Rosenbaum, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California office and a co-counsel in the case.

'Pervasive' Problems

The consent decree stipulates that the reforms would be carried out by the 1997-98 school year. But lawyers involved in the case predict that some changes are likely to come before and after that target date, too.

Chanda Smith, for whom the lawsuit is named, received special-education services in Los Angeles when she was in 6th grade in 1989-90. She then left the district and returned a year later.

Upon her return, the suit claims, the district never asked whether she had received special education in the past and failed to examine her school records to look for such information. It goes on to allege that the district violated special-education law by denying, until the fall of 1993, requests from the girl's mother to evaluate her daughter for special education even though the girl was struggling in school.

Ms. Smith, 19, now attends a private special-education school at the district's expense. Other students named in the suit, which was brought on behalf of all district students in special education or in need of such services, were reportedly denied services or removed from such programs without parental consent.

The scope of the suit grew over time as each side hired independent consultants to work together to determine whether the district was complying with state and federal special-education rules. After a 10-month review, they found the problems to be so widespread that nearly every aspect of the special-education system wound up becoming an issue in the case.

"The district suffers from a pervasive, substantial, and systemic inability to deliver special-education services in compliance with special-education laws," according to the consultants' 191-page report, which formed the basis for the consent decree and was made public last month.

For starters, the consultants discovered that the district's record-keeping system for students with disabilities was so dysfunctional that some staff members had resorted to using their home computers to track students and wrap up paperwork. The report also revealed that the district's special-education division does not have authority over much of its own budget or the district's 223 school psychologists. And due to staff shortages, the consultants found, teachers with emergency credentials or state waivers fill 300 of the district's special-education roughly 3,200 teacher slots.

With additional guidance from special-education experts, teachers, and parents, the consultants will put forth plans that detail exactly how their recommendations should be carried out, what they will cost, and when they should be in place. Then come the series of public hearings and, ultimately, board and court approval.

A 'Blank Check'?

The district's special-education woes should not come as a surprise, observers said last week. Disability-rights advocates reported chronic complaints from parents there, and the U.S. Department of Education has found the district out of compliance with federal special-education law.

And while some district officials have touted the consent decree's broad language as a plus, others don't see it that way.

"This is really like a blank check," said Julie Korenstein, the board member who abstained from the December vote. "I need specifics on how this is all going to happen and what it will cost."

Cost was also a sticking point for David Tokofsky, the board member who voted against the decree. But he expressed another concern, as well: the issue of accountability.

"Are we putting back in charge the same people who put us out of compliance in the first place?" he asked, noting that the consultants' report does not point a finger at any individual or group.

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