A few weeks ago, I wrote this story describing how and why charter schools within San Diego Unified have recently left the district’s special education program, choosing to get their special education services elsewhere.

The exodus was largely being driven by fees the district charges to charter schools. As the district’s special education funding has swelled, those fees have grown significantly. In 2004, the district charged charters $440 a student. Today it charges $888 a student.

Now, San Diego Unified is exploring ways to bring those charters back into its fold. It may be able to do that by essentially emulating the system that attracted charters away, an approach that’s recently been taken by Los Angeles Unified School District.

Bringing those charters back could result in some much-needed extra revenue for the district. It could also potentially prove beneficial for individual schools, which might see their special education funding boosted by coming back to the district.

But even if it can come up with a model that works, San Diego Unified will still have to convince skeptical charters to bring their special education programs back under the district’s purview. That could be tricky.

Why Charters Have Left …

At the core of this issue is the cost to charters of remaining within the district’s special education program.

Because San Diego Unified spends almost twice what it gets from the state to educate its students with special needs, the district eats into its everyday budget every year to make up the difference.

The district passes on that overflow in spending to the charter schools for which it provides special education services in the form of a per-student fee.

The fee applies to every student, not just kids with special needs.

And it can prove crippling to some charter schools, which may not have many students with special needs, but have to pay the district tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for special education services.

… And Where They’ve Gone

A few years ago, charters figured out another way of doing things.

The funding system for special education in California is based on organizations called Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs. Don’t get confused by the acronym, this is pretty simple.

These organizations are made up of either lots of little school districts or one big school district. Basically, they collect special education funding from the state and federal government, and use that money to provide special education services to all their member schools.

All the money allocated to schools in the district’s program goes straight to the district’s special education SELPA, which then provides services to all of its schools. The individual schools never see that money.

California charter schools realized they could set up a new type of relationship with other SELPAs outside of San Diego. Those other groups offered charters a new deal: Rather than taking all the money and providing special education services, they instead passed on most of the funding directly to the schools (minus an administration fee of about 5 percent to 10 percent).

The charters can use that money to design and pay for their own special education programs, and local charter schools say that gives them the freedom to design far more effective, tailor-made programs.

Because charter schools typically don’t have many students with special needs, many are able to fully pay for their special education programs with the money they get from the government. There’s no “spillover” into their everyday budget. Crucially, they also don’t have to pay those large fees to the district. That saves them a lot of money every year.

Winning Charters Back

After losing about half of its charter schools, San Diego Unified is now studying whether it might be able to offer charter schools the same option they get elsewhere: Full access to their funding, minus an administration fee.

The school board heard a presentation on this on Tuesday morning. It hasn’t taken any concrete action on the issue, and instead asked staff to come back with more data on a proposed plan.

“We’re looking to see if we can offer charters a better deal,” said district Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson.

If San Diego Unified moves to this new model, it could prove beneficial both to individual charters and to the district:

• The district could bring in some extra revenue from the administration fees it charged to schools. It would also have more oversight of the special education programs operating at charters within its boundaries.

• For charters, the benefit would also be monetary. The state allocates per-student funding to schools according to which SELPA they’re a member of. There’s a complicated formula that works out how much a student in, say El Centro, gets, compared to a student in San Diego.

As a large, urban district, San Diego Unified’s SELPA gets considerably more funding per-student than one of the SELPAs currently teamed up with local charter schools. Students in the San Diego SELPA are allocated $734 each in state and federal funding, compared to $637 at the other SELPA.

For a school with 1,000 students, that would mean an additional $97,000 a year.

Rhinerson said there could be other benefits, too. The school district has a wealth of local knowledge about special education services. It could help charter schools find the services they need efficiently and quickly, he said.

“A lot of the schools still call us for advice now anyway,” Rhinerson said.

Will They Come Back?

It remains to be seen whether charters are interested in re-coupling with the district.

Along with the cost issue, several charter school principals I spoke to earlier this year said they left the district’s program because of concerns about the way it was run.

If the district wants to oversee returning charters’ programs, it will have to answer charters’ questions about how much autonomy they will be allowed under the new system.

And, with San Diego Unified in the midst of an ongoing and seemingly endless budget crisis, charters would be placing the fate of their special education programs back into the hands of a district that’s in financial trouble.

David Sciaretta, principal of Albert Einstein Middle School, said he’s more than happy with the arrangement his school currently has with another SELPA, but said he would be interested in at least looking at what the district could offer.

“I’m not one of those people that says ‘If the district’s hands are on it, then I won’t even consider it,’” Sciarretta said. “At the end of the day, we want to do what’s best for the kids, and if we could have more money to increase our services, we would think about it.”

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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