Los Angeles’ bold move to reform special education

Feb 24, 2016, 12:52 AM

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio GWEN IFILL: It’s been four decades since a groundbreaking law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, took effect. Today, it helps ensure that more than six million students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education.

But, in many places, it’s been a struggle getting schools to comply with the law, and nearly 100 class-actions have been filed.

Special correspondent John Tulenko, with our partners at Education Week, follows the impact of one such case in California. That’s part of our weekly Tuesday night look at education, Making the Grade.

JOHN TULENKO: Los Angeles, California, is the nation’s second largest school system. And like other big cities across the country, it’s been the site of a pitched legal battle over special education.

The story begins in the early 1990s with a student named Chanda Smith, who was dyslexic and by high school could barely read.

CHANDA SMITH: It’s just like a bunch of words just scribbling on the paper, just everything just scribbling or just — it was very overwhelming. My mom told the teachers and everything. But after the third grade, I never got any help.

JOHN TULENKO: Now 39 and a mother of four, Chanda continues to struggle with a learning disability.

CHANDA SMITH: It’s affected me a lot. It’s hard for me to get a job. And I’m always having big worries, because I have to take care of my family. And it’s kind of sad because, when I have to go up to my 10-year-old, “Can you read this for mommy?” You know, I have a grandson now. I want to be able to read him a story. And that’s something that I can’t do.

I feel like it’s been taken away from me. For what reason? So, you know, it’s really hard and emotional.

DAVID ROSTETTER, Independent Monitor, LA Unified School District: Chanda was lost. They hadn’t identified her. They didn’t know where her records were. And so they weren’t providing adequate — adequate service to her. They were virtually providing no services to her.

JOHN TULENKO: Chanda’s story was a familiar one to David Rostetter. He’s a court-appointed monitor charged with ensuring schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere comply with special education laws.

DAVID ROSTETTER: I have had a lot of superintendents around the country, I will go to them and say, you know, this is really bad over here. I mean, this is a budding lawsuit and it’s patently illegal. And their answer will actually be, literally be: “I will deal with it when we get sued about it. Thanks for your advice, Dave.”

JOHN TULENKO: That was the case for Chanda Smith. Despite repeated requests for help, L.A. Unified did nothing until 1993, when Chanda’s mother took action. A single case of neglect turned into a class-action lawsuit that exposed a woefully broken system.

Thousands of students were not identified or misidentified. Nearly one third of all special education teachers were unlicensed. And procedures for tracking student records were nonexistent. The lawsuit pushed Los Angeles into a settlement agreement, imposing federal court oversight until the problems could be fixed.

That was nearly 20 years ago.

WOMAN: Good morning to you.

JOHN TULENKO: Today, much has changed for the district’s 80,000 students with special needs. Evaluations for services, for example, take less than 90 days.

Most special education teachers are certified. Academic performance for students with disabilities has improved, and the graduation rate is up, although it’s still short of the rate for students with disabilities nationwide.

The biggest change, to Sharyn Howell, who directs special education services here, has been in people’s attitudes.

SHARYN HOWELL, Special Education Director, LA Unified School District: I see a much different conversation than I used to see about our students. And it really is about people wanting them to perform academically and having expectations for them.

What we have been working on for a number of years ...