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In 2004, charter schools within the San Diego Unified School District had to pay the district $440 per student a year to help pay for special education services.

By 2011, that fee had more than doubled to $888. Next year, it’s going up again. The district estimates the fee will be $976.

As part of our series of posts checking up on the big stories we’ve looked at over the last year or so, I decided to revisit the issue of charter schools fleeing San Diego Unified’s special education program.

The charters have been leaving the district’s program for years, citing several factors including the rapidly rising fees.

As those schools leave, so do the federal and state special education dollars that come with them. So, the district’s been looking at how it could bring charters back into its special education fold.

The school board has looked at a model currently in place at Los Angeles Unified School District that allows charters to collect most of their special education funding, but also allows the district to charge the schools an administration fee. That model could bring much-needed dollars back to local schools, at a time when the district desperately needs all the money it can get.

But with the district also concentrating on a whole range of other pressing budgetary problems, there hasn’t been much movement on this issue.

Let’s take a look.

Where We Left It

As I reported back in January, dozens of charter schools have jumped ship from San Diego Unified’s special education program.

The key reason: Per-student fees the charters have to pay the district, regardless of how many children with special needs attend their school.

When I last wrote about this, the district’s annual fee for special education was up to $888 per student, more than twice what it was in 2004.

For many charters, that looks like a poor deal, since they may only have a handful, if any, students who actually require special education services. So, rather than paying the district’s fees, lots of charters have instead grouped together with organizations at other school districts to provide special education services at much lower prices.

The school district loses hundreds of dollars for each charter school student that opts out of its special education program. In theory, the district also has fewer students to provide services to as each charter leaves. But, because charters usually enroll so few kids with special needs, the district effectively ends up with much less money with which to provide services to about the same number of kids with special needs.

Because the district spends far more educating children with special needs than it gets from the state to do so, it has to dig into its day-to-day funding to make up the difference. That overspill increases every year, at least in part because of the exodus of charter schools, and that leads the district to crank up its fees. The higher fees, in turn, drive more charters away.

It’s a vicious circle.

San Diego Unified appeared to be taking action to counter the drain of charter schools back in March, when the school board met to examine its options.

What’s Happened Since

Not a lot, really.

That effort’s not over, it’s just stalled by the fiscal chaos enveloping the district

The district’s beset by problems on all sides. It’s facing a projected minimum deficit of $80 million next year, and recently announced that more than 1,600 employees would be laid off.

San Diego Unified’s effort to redesign its special education program has been encouraged by the California Charter Schools Association, which shepherded a similar move at Los Angeles Unified.

Lisa Berlanga, regional director for the association in San Diego, said her staff is trying to schedule a meeting with district officials to discuss the effort. A previous meeting was cancelled, Berlanga said.

What’s Next

Who knows?

The ball is in the district’s court.

Nothing’s going to move forwards on this unless the district wants it to and makes it happen. The district would have to design a new system that was attractive enough to charter schools to make them break with their current funding system.

With everything the district has on its plate right now, it’s anybody’s guess whether they choose to make this a priority, or if they even think it’s the right course to take.

I’ll be watching.

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

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

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