Special Education

Opponents of NUSD have raised a number of scary scenarios around special education, and other things to be feared if the new Northgate Unified School District were created.  So it’s helpful first to go over the landscape of special education as it pertains to MDUSD and the schools that would become part of NUSD.

Students receiving special education services (those with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs) constitute about 10-12% of the student population nationally, and in most school districts.  In MDUSD, approximately 12.4% of the students have IEPs.  In the five Northgate-area schools, approximately 7.6% of the students have IEPs.  Most students receive services onsite, in their regular school, either in special day classes designed for students sharing some of the same challenges, or with resource room services, where a student may go periodically to receive more intensive help on specific challenges, to supplement what the child’s regular classroom teacher is doing.

Special day classes and resource room services are typically created to meet the needs at that particular school site, and therefore, they do not depend all that much on the size of the district.  The onsite special education professionals who provide instruction are generally hired for that school site, and they manage their classes for the needs of that site.  Virtually every school district in California, including very small ones, serve those students in the same way.

In every district, there are also students who need more specialized services and whose challenges may not be shared by other students at their school site.  Those students typically travel, at district expense, to a site that can better address their needs. The special autism magnet program at Valle Verde is one such program.  It serves students who already live in the Valle Verde attendance area, but it also serves many students who travel from farther away to benefit from that special program.  This is the program that MDUSD says would end if NUSD were created, because they would move it to another school.

We have spoken to a number of administrators in special education who believe that MDUSD’s decision is not the only option.  Although MDUSD is so large it is accustomed to running its own programs through its own SELPA (Special Education Local Planning Area), that is more the exception, rather than the rule in California.  Most school districts in the state are too small to do that, so they use their county SELPS to seek out collaborative arrangements with nearby districts to serve students with more specialized needs.  MDUSD could choose to keep the autism program at Valle Verde, and because of the large number of students coming from MDUSD, they could even control it administratively.  But the costs could be shared pro rata, depending on the number of students coming from each district (including districts in addition to MDUSD and NUSD, if more students were desired to keep the program viable).  MDUSD seems unwilling to consider that option, but it is a widely used option in the state and right here in Contra Costa County.  So when we hear that the creation of NUSD would “disrupt” programs like the one at Valle Verde, we have to remember that it is MDUSD that would be choosing to dismantle it and move it to another location.

Indeed, MDUSD does collaborate with other districts in certain specialized programs that require a higher critical number for students to be viable.  The highly regarded Robert Shearer preschool at Gregory Gardens enrolls students from other districts to maintain its desired size of 150 students, and those other districts pay MDSD for those services.

There are other specialized programs where smaller districts can collaborate with one another, such as alternative schools for students who have had difficulty with the general education environment, and home and hospital programs, which serve students whose health or disability requires them to receive instruction outside school sites.  Below is a list, provided by MDUSD last December, showing the numbers of students residing in the Northgate area who are receiving various special education services.  As you can see, the majority of students (178) are served in the special day class and resource room programs described above.  But there are 7 students, for example, who are served by the home and hospital program, and 1 student attending the Robert Shearer program at Gregory Gardens. NUSD would have to make arrangements for these students to participate in programs run by the County or in collaboration with MDUSD or other districts.

Although the special education population will almost certainly be different when NUSD begins operation, the current MDUSD arrangements provided the basis for the NUSD financial estimates for special education that appear in our report.  Indeed, the proposed NUSD spending per student in special education ($22,464) is virtually the same as what MDUSD currently spends ($22,483).  But NUSD will not have to pay for the large in-house special education infrastructure that MDUSD must support, regardless of changing needs in the student population.  Instead, IEP teams in NUSD will be less constrained to use in-house resources and will have more flexible access to County or private resources when they are likely to provide better outcomes for the student.

Source:  “Important information for Families in the Northgate Feeder Pattern” reported by MDUSD as an attachment to the 12/12/2016 Board of Education meeting.


MDUSD Spending and Results in Special Education – Although we have heard a great deal about how MDUSD’s in-house services would be difficult to replicate in NUSD, we haven’t heard as much about the district’s overall results with students with disabilities.  We know that MDUSD’s model of providing almost all services in-house requires spending that is considerably higher, as a percent of the district’s overall budget, than any other district in Contra Costa County (29.2% in MDUSD vs 17.7% in the equally large San Ramon Valley USD, or 23.8% in West Contra Costa USD, which has an equally, if not more, challenging student population).  Smaller districts that are more similar to NUSD typically spend in the range of 15-20% of their total budgets on special education, and to be conservative, we project that NUSD may spend at the higher end of that range. These figures matter, because reimbursements for special education services from the state and federal governments cover only a portion of the services required by law, so districts must cover that gap out of general education funds.


For example, if MDUSD spent the same proportion on special education as WCCUSD, it would have an additional 5.4% of its budget, or about $20 million per year, to spend on other pressing needs. Matching the County average percentage spent on special education would yield an additional $7 million per year. The information below is reported in the Contra Costa County Office of Education 2014-15 Annual Financial Report.

MDUSD’s much higher rate of spending on special education could well be justified if the students being served could reach higher levels of achievement.  But the data don’t show that.  Below is a chart showing the percentage of students with a disability in MDUSD who meet or exceed standards on the 2015-16 state testing.  In English/Language Arts, only 13% performed at that level, right at the state average, and only 9% met that standard for Math, below both the state and county averages.  One doesn’t expect the population of students with IEPs to have results that are at all similar to the general education population, but this comparison with other students in special education does not put MDUSD in a particularly favorable light.


2015-16 Smarter Balanced Assessment Results

Percent of High-Need Students Meeting or Exceeding Standards

Source: California Department of Education DataQuest

In the end, we believe that NUSD can do as well, and perhaps better, serving students with special needs than MDUSD does, in part by having more flexibility in choosing providers than is found in MDUSD, which relies primarily on in-house resources.  A smaller, community-based school district can be quicker to respond changing student needs and more tailored in its approaches to students with the greatest needs in special education.  Although MDUSD is clearly proud of its Special Education infrastructure, the data suggest that it is a less-flexible and higher-cost model that does not compare particularly well with outcomes in other districts, which achieve results that are as good, if not better, than those achieved by MDUSD.