Published Online: April 30, 1997


Issue of Spec. Ed. in Prisons Pits Calif., ED

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In an unusual test of special education's limits, California and the Department of Education are at odds over the state's refusal to provide special education services for disabled young people in prison for serious crimes. Browse Education Week's 'Web Connection' Your Best On-line Source for Education Products and Services

The California Department of Corrections and Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, want the federal Education Department to allow states to decide whether to provide special education to incarcerated youths and adults age 21 and younger. But the federal department has threatened to withhold special education funding if California doesn't change its ways.

In an April 18 letter, Mr. Wilson said that many of the California inmates in question had no chance of being rehabilitated, and that many are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Two are on death row.

"These wards have been moved to adult correctional institutions because they are violent thugs, not some misguided kids who stole pizzas," Mr. Wilson wrote to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "They include murderers, armed robbers, and rapists."

At stake is more than $300 million in federal funds that help provide a free, appropriate education to disabled students through age 21 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The state must also offer those services to inmates who qualify, the Education Department says.

The federal money is only a part of the state's $3.4 billion annual special education budget, but state leaders say that the department's threatened action is unfair and that a cutoff of federal dollars would siphon resources from other disabled students.

"Mandating special education services for adult inmates makes no sense," Mr. Wilson wrote.

A Guarantee for Services

Education Department officials refused to comment on the case last week because of ongoing back-room negotiations in the reauthorization of the idea. ("Progress Is Slow-Going in Spec. Ed. Negotiations," April 9, 1997.) They discovered the lapse in the state's services during a routine compliance monitoring review early last year.

But Jim Bradshaw, an education department spokesman, said federal officials had interpreted the idea to guarantee an education for all disabled students, including those incarcerated.

At a House IDEA hearing in February, one special education director from California asked Congress to give states discretion on whether to provide special education to incarcerated youths, and some lawmakers have expressed interest in clarifying the law to exclude prisoners.

Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee that is handling the IDEA reauthorization, has opposed the Education Department's policy.

Beau Phillips, a spokesman for Mr. Riggs, called the department's potential action against California "an arbitrary, capricious threat" and blasted its plans to "threaten the special education services of all disabled children over a handful of 21-year-old inmates."

He would not comment on whether the IDEA legislation being negotiated would have language on special education services for incarcerated disabled youths. Subcommittee members have said they hope to unveil their reauthorization language by Memorial Day.

Showdown in Sacramento?

About 10,000 inmates in California's corrections system are 21 or younger, according to a spokesman for the California corrections department. None currently receives special education services, and it is unclear how many would qualify if the corrections department offered the services.

Wards in the California Youth Authority who are eligible for special education, however, do receive services, according to a spokesman. About 9,100 youths ages 13 to 24 are housed by the youth authority.

In addition to California, 24 other states have been ordered to provide special education services to inmates, according to an Education Department spokesman. But those violations were not as severe as those in California, and the other states have agreed to provide services, the spokesman said.

The Education Department plans to hold a hearing next month in Sacramento on whether to allow California to enter into a compliance agreement, in which the state would agree to provide services to young inmates by an agreed-upon date. The state would be required to prove consistent progress toward that goal.

But a spokesman for the California corrections department said the state plans to fight the law, rather than comply.

"We feel the money more rightly should go to public school children in kindergarten to 12th grades rather than having it go to adult inmates in prison," the spokesman said.

To support his position, Gov. Wilson cited the Virginia v. Riley case, in which a federal appeals court said Virginia did not violate federal law in cutting off services for violent disabled students.

The Education Department had also tried to withhold the state's special education allotment in that case. ("Court Rejects ED Stance in Spec. Ed. Discipline Case," Feb. 12, 1997.)

However, that ruling only applies in the federal court system's 4th Circuit, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

In a related case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit last week rejected an appeal by youths incarcerated in Arizona, who claimed the state had violated the idea by not providing them with special education.

The court ruled that the state was not at fault because it attempted to provide the services once it realized its mistake.

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