Cost of court schools escalates with difficult population

The state's court school system, which serves students engaged in the criminal justice system, faces ongoing fiscal pressure largely because of the smaller class sizes they must provide and the high number of special education students that they serve, according to a report released last week.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst found that the cost of operating court schools escalates with requirements that county probation departments can impose for smaller, more manageable classes. The LAO also noted that court schools tend to have high special education needs yet lack the leverage to negotiate higher special education pass throughs."

Among the recommendations to the Legislature, the LAO said that the state could consider establishing cost sharing between the county court schools and probation departments. The LAO also said lawmakers should also consider providing supplemental funding for court schools.

As part of the broader heading of educational services called "alternative" schooling, the court schools serve students who pose perhaps the greatest challenge within the public system not just of dropping out but by becoming an even more serious drain on taxpayer resources either by entering prison as adults or by continuing to engage in criminal behavior.

Statewide, court schools serve about 13,400 students who are in the criminal justice system either awaiting trial or sentenced to county facilities.

Overall, alternative education programs in California serve close to 104,000 students.

There are five alternative education programs serving at-risk students in California. Generally, continuation high schools provide services to students who are behind in their coursework and at risk of not graduating. County community schools and community day schools primarily serve students who have been expelled or facing expulsion from school.

Ongoing complaints from county offices that court schools were being neglected in the budget prompted the LAO to look more closely at how money is spent on the local level as well as the overall support for students in the criminal justice system.

County offices receive a higher average daily attendance than traditional schools: counties get about $9,000 per ADA, but also operate year-round services. Traditional schools receive approximately $5,000 per ADA, according to the report.

To gather additional data, the LAO sent surveys to all 58 county offices of education, of which 30 responded.

The LAO report notes that they were not able to draw specific conclusions on how alternative education programs are funded because of the lack of statewide data. However, it found that the court schools do have access to a number of categorical program dollars.

But even with access to categorical funds, court schools still have difficulty balancing budgets due to the financial pressures from smaller class sizes and a high number of special education students.

Court school class sizes, the report says, are "largely driven by safety considerations, which are handled by the probation department" and drive up operational costs without additional compensation.

The probation department may determine the class sizes but are not required to contribute to the additional costs. This, the report says, has created a "disconnect between programmatic and budgetary control" which could be remedied if there were greater alignment between the fiscal and programmatic sides of the operation.

The solution, the LAO recommends, might be requiring county offices of education and probation departments to develop cost-sharing mechanisms that would trigger once a class size drops to a specified level.

The numbers of special education students entering court school programs also places budgetary squeeze on county offices.

The state allocates funding to Special Education Local Plan Areas or SELPAs assuming that 10 percent of the student population is identified as students with disabilities. This funding determination is theorized to prevent the over identification of students with disabilities.

The 10 percent assumption is then used to pay county court schools for its expected special education population, which in reality, is closer to 20 percent and sometimes as high as 37 percent, according to the surveys received by the LAO.

This population of special education students requires much higher services which the COEs report are hard to fund due to inadequate funding. The LAO recommends that to ensure court schools have greater access to special education funds, SELPAs consider adjusting "pass throughs to account for the higher needs of certain schools" and "to instituting a supplemental special education allocation from within the state's existing appropriation directly for court schools."

To read the LAO's report click here: more