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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Transformational funding for transformational action
Dispute resolution and learning recovery for special education
By Anjanette Pelletier, Veronica Coats and Aaron Benton | November | December 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic forced education to change in myriad ways, and the changes are still coming. Schools look different, and as we return to in-person learning, education continues to evolve. As schools focus on student learning, recovery and return to brick-and-mortar schooling, there have been a variety of one-time funds made available to ensure quality implementation of educational programs.
COVID-19 especially impacted special education programs and services, and students with disabilities, who rely on proximity with staff for physical, communication, mental health and academic supports, often struggled through distance learning. They received services different from their written Individual Education Program (IEP) offer of a Free and Appropriate Public Education and, in many cases, experienced disproportionate social, emotional, and behavioral impacts as a result of the global pandemic. Fortunately, the governor and the legislature included significant special education resources for students with disabilities, including targeted funds to complement those in Assembly Bill 86 for ensuring learning recovery for our most at-risk students.
The 2021-2022 education budget capped multi-year investments by the governor and legislature in much-needed special education funding. The Coalition for Adequate Funding for Special Education and its partner organization, the Special Education Local Plan Area Administrators of California, co-sponsored bills aligned with long-standing advocacy for adequate special education funding. Coalition and SELPA priorities such as: Equalization and increases in special education base rates; funding for early childhood intervention programs and services; investments in infants and preschool students with disabilities; targeted funding for students with low incidence disabilities and those with moderate-severe needs; and expanded resources and services for alternative dispute resolution are also aligned with the 2015 “One System” Statewide Special Education Task Force Report recommendations.
Starting in 2018-19, the governor included funding increases in the annual budget, culminating in massive ongoing funding commitments in 2021-2022 that raise the special education base rate to $715 per Average Daily Attendance (an almost 15 percent increase), with $123 million in ongoing low incidence disability funding and $260 million for the Special Education Early Intervention Preschool Grant.
Transformational funding increases will have a lasting impact, with a focus on inclusive practices, targeted interventions and improved outcomes for students with disabilities. During the same period, as investments in special education began to increase, SELPAs have implemented state-mandated accountability systems and efficiencies intended to achieve greater local control and transparency while improving outcomes for students with disabilities. For example, all SELPAs updated Local Plans to a newly-required California Department of Education (CDE) template by June of 2021.
The Local Plan adoption process means that 100 percent of the local education agencies (LEAs) in the state have affirmed their participation in their SELPA, its governance structure and funding allocation models, and they formalized their participation via the adoption of the three-year Local Plan by each LEAs’ board of education. Each LEA has reviewed and affirmed their obligations under IDEA, as well as their commitments, responsibilities and interagency collaborations under the terms of the Local Plan. Many SELPAs took the opportunity to also update local policies and procedural manuals and created locally determined models to improve effectiveness, efficiency and use of increased funds for their students.
With the new Local Plan Template, LEAs affirmed their mandate to ensure inclusive practices and placements for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, a focus on student outcomes, and the use of strategies within what is now referred to as “Appropriate” Dispute Resolution (ADR) as part of the IEP process. SELPAs in California have been working on increasing the use of ADR strategies for years and using the resources of The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) to implement those strategies.
Addressing the impacts to student wellness and learning should be thoughtfully done through an empathetic lens with an incentive to preserve the relationship between families and LEAs. California has four times the national rate of special education legal filings, which are costly in dollars and even more so in the taxing of relationships. This funding, in conjunction with the funding to create a statewide continuum of ADR from the CDE to SELPAs and their LEAs, is groundbreaking as it inspires us to rethink the system.

CADRE is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs at the US Department of Education. It works to increase the nation’s capacity to prevent and resolve special education and early intervention disputes by fostering productive home, school and provider partnerships and the use of collaborative processes to improve outcomes for children and youth with disabilities. CADRE assists states with the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act procedural safeguards provisions and the development of high-performing dispute resolution systems through the identification and dissemination of exemplary practices related to program design, implementation, evaluation and improvement.
CADRE identifies a continuum of strategies, provides trainings and resources for educational agencies and families and is a warehouse for best practices in the ADR field. Unlike other states, CDE uses limited continuum strategies as part of procedural safeguard activities. Fortunately, SELPAs have provided the leadership and implementation support for ADR, and with targeted grant funding from the CDE, ADR has expanded to more than 130 SELPAs statewide. Thousands of SELPA and LEA staff have participated in ADR trainings, and most LEAs have access to strategies on the continuum of ADR to support their capacity to resolve and prevent disputes around special education. An example of this leadership is found at the East Valley Consortium SELPA in San Bernardino County who organizes an exceptional statewide ADR Conference every year in Riverside, California.
SELPAs across the state have seen the positive impact of using ADR strategies, providing ADR training and capacity to LEA staff, and in using the continuum at its earliest levels to prevent, resolve and identify alternatives to disputes, allowing families and LEAs to work together positively with a focus on the student. As COVID hit, SELPA leaders realized there would be potential for disagreement, disputes and due process due to the impact of early school closures and distance learning. They also realized the return to in-person learning would look different from pre-COVID instruction. SELPA leaders worked with their advocacy support staff and identified a need to sponsor a COVID Impact and ADR bill to request funding to provide support to respond to COVID-19 impacts.
Members of the Coalition and State SELPA Association leveraged existing relationships with legislative staffers, identified critical partners such as the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and worked with Assemblymember Jim Frazier to author Assembly Bill 967, with Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell as co-author. AB 967 identified the dramatic predicted need for early prevention and dispute resolution due to COVID-19 for students with disabilities, and proposed funds for supports and services to students with disabilities who experienced COVID-19 impacts to their learning, services and supports. With an eye toward rapid response, early intervention and support for learning recovery, the bill proposed $1 billion be placed in a COVID-19 ADR and Learning Recovery Fund to allow LEAs to obtain recovery services proactively and quickly to students, and to also keep resources focused on student supports rather than litigation and attorney fees.
The legislative process marches forward at the same time as the governor’s budget process, with opportunities for alignment at the May Revise and as part of the Education Omnibus Trailer Bill. The Coalition, SELPAs and the Alliance for Children’s Rights engaged in a support letter-writing campaign with their constituencies and were pleased to see the governor include in his updated budget funding directly aligned with the proposals of AB 967. Inclusion of these components in the budget meant a faster path to funding and implementation of the identified desired outcomes of prevention, early intervention, family engagement and collaboration focused on student needs, recovery, and services for the impact of COVID-19 from March 2020 to September 2021.
SELPAs and their LEAs must ensure quality communication and outreach to families in their region, with an eye to equity, collaboration, and dispute prevention.
The final 2021-2022 budget includes transformational ongoing funding increases for special education and a total of $550 million one-time investments in education activities that impact special education and students with disabilities. Two specific sections identify funds for SELPAs to mitigate COVID impacts: $100 million for appropriate dispute resolution (estimated by School Services of California at $125 per eligible pupil) and $450 million for learning recovery (estimated by School Services of California at $564 per eligible pupil). SELPAs and their LEA members will develop action and budget plans for use of these funds — in alignment with the requirements of the Budget Act — and should have plans submitted by October 1, with final reporting on expenditures, activities and outcomes by fall of 2023.
The ADR COVID Impact funds provide $100 million to SELPAs for supporting LEAs in conducting dispute prevention and voluntary ADR activities to prevent and resolve special education disputes resulting from school disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. SELPAs are required to allocate at least 80 percent of the funds to member LEAs based on their pupil count data. The submitted plan may include regional SELPA activities and supports to build ADR capacity, communication, and outreach to families. The Budget Act language indicates that the funds should be used for:
  • Early intervention to promote collaboration and prevent disputes;
  • Voluntary ADR activities;
  • Work in partnership with family empowerment centers or family support organizations; and
  • Develop and implement plans to identify, and conduct outreach to, families who face language barriers and other challenges to participation in the special education process, and whose pupils have experienced significant disruption to their education.
The budget includes $450 million provided for learning recovery support to pupils, associated with impacts due to school disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Budget Act requires that SELPAs and LEAs shall:
  • Ensure that learning recovery supports are related to COVID-19 school disruptions during the period of March 13, 2020, to Sept. 1, 2021;
  • Match funding received on a one-to-one basis by other funds spent for these purposes;
  • Not use funds received to supplant existing expenditures or obligations; and
  • Not use funds received for, or use these funds to match expenditures for, attorney’s fees.
What will implementation of these Learning Recovery Plans look like? Each SELPA will work with its member LEAs to determine locally identified activities, trainings, resources and capacity building needed in the region. SELPAs and their LEAs must ensure quality communication and outreach to families in their region, with an eye to equity, collaboration and dispute prevention. The intention is to ensure that student needs and recovery are the focus, that funds can impact the learning recovery needed due to COVID impacts, and that responses are targeted and timely.
Many SELPAs may take advantage of these one-time funds to enhance their LEA access to ADR training and supports, to ensure high quality and easy-to-access information and to enhance partnerships with regional advocacy organizations and family empowerment centers. SELPAs already are supporting regional availability of ADR options, and LEAs may identify additional supports and resources they believe will best meet their local needs. Additionally, a small part of the Budget Act encourages the CDE to survey their utilization of strategies on the continuum and to begin a statewide facilitation network for ADR activities.
As more students go back to in-person learning, SELPAs and LEAs want to be part of the solution to ensure students with disabilities get the services they need. We want to uplift proactive measures which preserve relationships and promote equitable solutions. These one-time funds provide an incentive to use ADR to quickly provide services to all. The plans and funding prioritize marginalized, underserved, and under-resourced families, who may not have been able to effectively navigate the processes related to their procedural safeguards. These funds do what SELPAs have been doing for years, working with families to ensure their rights are realized.
For the Learning Recovery funds, which are estimated at around $564 per eligible pupil, LEAs in coordination with their SELPAs may determine locally appropriate and defined student focused interventions. These may be regional responses, such as expansion and implementation of literacy recovery strategies, behavioral, social and emotional learning resources, mental health programming or other targeted interventions for many students within an LEA or region. Alternatively, some SELPAs and LEAs may determine that a portion of the funds would best be utilized for individualized services, compensatory activities or agreements targeted to specific IEP supports and services impacted by school disruptions.
Plans are due to CDE by October 1, and SELPAs will support their LEAs to ensure innovation, creativity and student-focused impact of these one-time funds. Check out the SELPA Administrators of California website at https://selpa.info/ to see ongoing informational posts about the implementation of Learning Recovery plans across the state. Final reports to the legislature and CDE are due in fall 2023. SELPAs look forward to demonstrating the lasting impact and innovation that are achieved by their member LEAs over the next two years.
Anjanette Pelletier is the Associate Superintendent of the San Mateo County SELPA. Veronica Coats is the Assistant Superintendent of the Tehama County SELPA. Aaron Benton is the SELPA Director for the Butte County SELPA
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