You are currently viewing The California Advisory Commission Annual Report: 2018-19

The California Advisory Commission Annual Report: 2018-19

The Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) is a federally mandated advisory panel charged with providing policy guidance on special education and related services for children with disabilities in California. As such, the ACSE closely studies the work of the California Department of Education (CDE), Special Education Division (SED), to ensure that local educational agencies (LEAs) comply with legal requirements for how students with disabilities receive services, and how federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) dollars are spent to provide those services. To fulfill its monitoring responsibilities, the ACSE has welcomed regular updates on the plans and progress of the division. The State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) is the division’s primary roadmap. With the plan currently in its third and final phase, the division is focused on implementing the plan and evaluating its results. The SSIP was developed around a theory of action to coordinate and align all educational accountability efforts and resources in the state. It appears to be delivering on its promise by:

  • Helping to make Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) integral to the development of Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP) and establishing the expertise of SELPA leaders as integral to whole-system reform and improvement efforts
  • Contributing to statewide efforts to
    improve school climate
  • Creating more authentic inclusive settings for students with disabilities through the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) project
  • Making Multitiered System of Supports (MTSS) a framework that is embraced by both general and special educators
  • Aligning technical assistance contracts with California’s System of Support and ensuring that contracts specifically support LEAs that are eligible for differentiated assistance
  • Aligning SED monitoring processes with that same System of Support through the use of LCAP and Dashboard data

Perhaps one of the most visible signs of special education-general education integration is the imminent plan to merge the special education data system, California Special Education Management Information System (CASEMIS), with the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CalPADS). The ACSE appreciates the division’s willingness to acquire the “data savvy” that this change requires, as well as the division’s unwavering commitment to contributing to a unified system of education that includes all students.

Director’s Report

At each of its meetings, the ACSE welcomed a report from Kristin Wright, SED director. Wright’s vision echoes, guides, and challenges the work of the ACSE through her focus on the following:

  • Presumed competence and high expectations for all students as the only defensible position for creating programs and policy
  • Accountability for every student so that every student counts
  • Communication and literacy as essential components for every student to succeed in school and in life
  • MTSS as a vehicle for ensuring that every student has a chance to thrive in the general education classroom
  • Institutionalizing the practice of addressing each student’s unique needs rather than making decisions about placement and instruction on a label of disability
  • The ability of all teachers to serve students with the greatest need
  • The perspective of parents, and the importance of strengthening parent centers so they can better provide information and training to parents, who then can become their children’s most effective advocates
  • Mapping to living-wage employment from birth for every student
  • Quality Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) as the heart of effective services
  • Partnerships and collaboration at all levels: school, community, region, state, and more
  • Quality preparation, training, and support for school administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals
  • Behavioral health and school-based behavioral services

Committed to cohesion that serves all students and families, Wright has coordinated internally with other CDE divisions, strengthened the SED’s collaboration with SELPAs to improve systems of regional supports for schools and LEAs, worked across agencies so that state services to students and families are more seamless and navigable, aligned CDE contracts, and reorganized her own division to be more content rich and customer focused. The primary task of the Special Education Division is to monitor LEAs for compliance with IDEA and to provide technical assistance in service to that compliance. Integral to this effort has been Wright’s collaboration with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) to develop an effective statewide System of Support that works with schools and LEAs and that respects issues of local control and culture.

Wright’s commitments—to equity, to changing attitudes about disability, to shifting mindsets about what is possible for any child—have promised to make her tenure as division director a national model of effective leadership and change.

Statewide System of Support

The ACSE has followed the development of the state’s System of Support for schools and LEAs and  finds noteworthy the level of coordination among the numerous agencies working with the CCEE to provide effective and customized supports that serve local needs.

The majority of schools and LEAs that most frequently need significant support, as highlighted in the California Schools Dashboard, are struggling to better serve and educate students with disabilities. The ACSE particularly welcomes the CCEE’s close partnership with the Special Education Division. The ACSE also welcomes the tiered design of the CCEE’s work specifically and the System of Support in general as together they reflect one system of education that offers a continuum of supports, echoing the tiers of MTSS. This alignment across systems represents another example of the growing coherence in structures and language across California’s educational system.

Special Education Funding

California’s budget for 2019–2020 earmarked $5.9 billion for special education, the largest investment in years. The appropriation, however, is contingent on legislation that enacts special education reforms designed to increase SELPA accountability, expand inclusive practices, and successfully address disproportionality. The ACSE sees these requirements as a way to ensure smart spending and to improve the system of education for all students.

How special education dollars are allocated has been an ongoing concern for the ACSE. California’s current approach allocates money based on the average daily attendance of all students in a geographic region. This approach was designed in part to avoid incentives for identifying students as having a disability when none existed. The current formula, however, has contributed to funding inequities among SELPAs. At the same time, the state’s general student population is declining while the number of students identified with a disability is increasing—two conditions that contribute to even greater inequities. The ACSE therefore welcomed both the state’s recognition that a census-based approach to funding is not always adequate and the proposed plan to rectify the imbalance by allowing special allocations—for example, for very small SELPAs that cannot take advantage of economies of scale—and partially basing funding on the number of students with low incidence disabilities, among other considerations. The ACSE appreciated the opportunity to offer ideas for how to equalize funding and how to ensure that the money is targeted for effective services.

The LCFF has given LEAs a significant amount of flexibility in how they use their educational dollars, especially their local funding. While Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) grants are weighted toward students who are English learners, students in foster care, and students in poverty (high-need students), data show that students with disabilities are among those with the highest needs—and more than 70 percent of them belong to one or more of those other three high-needs groups. The ACSE will attend closely to how new funding formulas and structures are developed and defined, and how LEAs make choices that best serve all of their students, including students with disabilities.

In general, special education in California is expensive, and special education financing is complicated. While services for students with disabilities could not happen without targeted funding, the ACSE welcomes the state’s recognition that students with disabilities are general education students first and have as much right to the benefits of general education dollars as any other student. Special education money should be spent only for the excess cost of what must be provided over and above what any other students receive.  

California’s Accountability System

The ACSE has appreciated the challenge the state has faced in responding to the requirement of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and integrating local, state, and federal accountability and continuous improvement systems to include all students in assessment and accountability efforts. The ACSE is in firm support of the underlying beliefs guiding these efforts: every student is important and deserves the best education possible, and schools and LEAs are more likely to attend to every student if every student is included in the accountability system.

The ACSE has been particularly appreciative of the CDE’s commitment to refining the California Schools Dashboard through a process that is guided by feedback from stakeholders. Throughout the year, the ACSE heard reports from the Assessment Development and Administration Division; the Academic Analysis and Accountability Unit; and the Analysis, Measurement, and Accountability Reporting Division about efforts to make Dashboard data more meaningful, actionable, and user friendly. The division has improved the Spanish language portals, created more intuitive and accurate search functionalities, improved the orientation to the Dashboard for new users, and worked to ensure that the information reflected in the Dashboard is complete and accurate. These efforts are designed to:

  • Accurately record graduation rates in the Dashboard, since not all students with disabilities graduate from high school in four years. The ACSE supports the division’s determination to find a way to give schools and LEAs—and especially students—credit for graduating in five years and not limit data reports to four-year graduates only. The ACSE also appreciates the complications involved in adding a five-year cohort to the Dashboard.
  • Represent the school progress of students who attend nonpublic and alternative schools that are given a Dashboard Alternative School Status (DASS). The ACSE appreciates the amount of work involved in establishing the criteria and formulas for accurately representing school progress, status, and graduation rates for these students in both data systems and Dashboard reports. The ACSE understands that the schools are alternative in design, and the trajectory of school success for their students does not align with the progress of students in traditional schools. The ACSE holds, however, that these students and schools deserve representation in all of the state’s data and accountability systems; their graduation success, even if it takes five years of high school, should be a point of celebration and a matter of record.
  • Re-define “medically fragile” as a category for students, especially as this status can influence scores for chronic absenteeism and thus school and LEA rankings in the Dashboard. In general, the ACSE was unanimous in its position on the importance of school attendance—the more the better, and as much as possible—and advised the division to be very specific in defining the condition of medically fragile and listing qualifying criteria in order to preclude opportunities for misinterpretation or abuse.
  • Address the discrepancy that currently exists between legal responsibility and recorded accountability in the Dashboard for students with disabilities. Under IDEA, a student’s district of residence (or record) is responsible for ensuring that IDEA requirements are fulfilled, and each district of residence receives IDEA money to do so. Yet a district of residence (which can be a charter school) may not be able to provide all of the required services and thus may contract with another school, district, or county office of education for those services. The service-providing entity, however, is often the one reflected in the Dashboard, not the district of residence. The ACSE formally moved to support changes to the 2019 Dashboard to expand the district of accountability rules to both the place of service and the district of residence for academic indicators, and to expand the responsibility for all state indicators in the Dashboard in 2020.
  • Record the receipt of certificates of completion in the Dashboard. The ACSE appreciates the SED’s efforts to create methodologies for incorporating the scores of alternate assessments and certificates into Dashboard reports as well as the complications inherent in efforts to convert scores in a way that accurately registers student learning.
  • Align all Dashboard indicators with LCFF priorities.
  • Provide comprehensive support to schools based on the lowest performing 3 percent of Title 1 schools and high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent.
  • Adjust the calculation grids in the Dashboard to fairly report scores for LEAs with small student populations so that results are not skewed and LEAs are not penalized just because they are small.
  • Refine the state’s monitoring system so that it aligns with the IDEA monitoring requirements with the goal of effectively tracking the educational results and functional outcomes for students with disabilities, while ensuring that LEAs meet the program requirements under Part B of IDEA.
  • Provide training and support to educators so they know how to gather and report data accurately and consistently.


Because student assessments are integral to the state’s accountability system, the ACSE welcomed regular updates from the Assessment Development and Administration Division on the state’s efforts to improve the measurement of student progress. The ACSE appreciates the division’s work in the following areas:

  • Transitioning the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) online and taking advantage of online features to report test results to families in ways that are convenient, manageable, and clear. The video enhancements in particular promise to help parents better understand their child’s performance in school and engage with the child’s teachers
  • Creating a Starting Smarter website designed with an intuitively friendly interface that gives parents and family members information about both the CAASPP and the California Alternate Assessments (CAAs), offers enhanced electronic student reports that can be frequently accessed, and explains aspects of the specific tests themselves, such as the reasons that answers to certain test questions are correct.
  • Maintaining the option to deliver test reports on paper through the mail as well as electronically.
  • Developing the ground-breaking California Science Test as a measure of the state’s Next-Generation Science Standards, ensuring challenging content for all students, and creating incentives to teach science in every grade and to every student through the following:
    • Extensive, embedded accessibility
      resources in the tests that are appropriate, useful, and not distracting to the student
    • Realistic performance expectations for all students
    • Teacher training on how to prepare students to take the tests
    • Reduced complexity of the language in the test items for the CAAs for English language arts and mathematics that does not change the test content; allowances for testing students directly after instruction; and clearer orientation for students to the test activities
  • Changing the regulatory processes and accessibility framework of the state’s English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC), making the test computer-based, and creating an alternate assessment—all of which will determine the English language fluency of California’s students, with and without disabilities, and serve the state’s reclassification process, which involves determining that a student who has been an English learner has been Reclassified to Fluent English Proficient (RFEP)

The ACSE supports the division’s commitment to giving students the most appropriate assessment as defined by their IEPs, including students with significant developmental and cognitive disabilities. The commission expressed concern about the number of parents who choose the “opt-out” provision for assessments since the resulting scores for all students provide an important gauge for guiding student progress and school improvement.

The ACSE appreciates the challenge of ensuring appropriate and individualized accessibility options for every student with a disability when taking assessments. The commission commended the fairness and thoughtfulness that went into the division’s efforts to design the Individual Student Assessment Accessibility Profile (ISAAP) and Seven-Step Process Guidelines. The ACSE especially welcomed the guidance this process provides to teachers for how to use the assessment’s accessibility features as well as the division’s interest in revising its material, including its website, to make information clearer and easier to navigate. The ACSE also appreciates the state’s interest in incorporating participation rates for student assessments into the Dashboard’s academic indicator and penalizing schools with low participation rates.

In general, the ACSE appreciates the division’s responsiveness to the ACSE’s recommendations for enhanced interface features and improved accessibility to the state’s tests and test results for both students and parents. The division’s patience and collaborative approach has earned the ACSE’s deepest appreciation and highest regard.


The ACSE received regular updates from the CDE’s Curriculum and Instructional Division, especially as the division has requested the perspective and advice of the ACSE on revising curriculum, and as it has demonstrated its commitment to embedding access and equity throughout all content areas.

Past curricular frameworks and guidelines had confined access and equity to a separate chapter. Now each discipline-specific chapter will embed a focus on access and equity throughout and include specific examples of how teachers might differentiate instruction and create access to content. The ACSE welcomed this new lens for the frameworks—in the visual and performing arts, world languages, science, and health specifically—as that lens embeds strategies of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to ensure that all students have the opportunity to acquire content knowledge and competency. This holistic approach helps to create an educational culture that responds effectively to the individual strengths and needs of each student.

The ACSE emphasized the importance of specifying in all materials the fact of disability as an identity—its own cultural group—in order to remedy patterns of marginalization. The commission also noted that the law justifies considering disability through the lenses of diversity and equity. As its efforts are grounded in research, professional experience, and state standards, the ACSE applauds the efforts of the Curriculum and Instructional Division to ensure full access and quality instruction for all students. 

High School Diplomas

The ACSE commissioners participated in a panel discussion with members of the California Transition Alliance about creating or allowing additional diploma options for students with disabilities. For the panel members, the long-lasting and detrimental effects of leaving high school without a diploma argue in favor of granting students every possible avenue for earning one. These effects include the psychological damage of perceived failure, barriers to employment, and loss of financial aid prospects for post-secondary education or training. The state grants a certificate of completion to some students with disabilities who fail to earn a diploma. This certificate, however, does not mitigate any of the above challenges, and often sentences young adults to a life of low-paying jobs at best.

The ACSE would like to see students with disabilities “added to the list of students who could follow multiple diploma options.” The ACSE recognizes that the questions of who can earn a diploma and how students are placed on a diploma track beg larger questions, such as how to establish “early, high expectations” for students with disabilities. In consequence, the ACSE recommends that:

  • Formal transition planning starts as early as possible—far earlier than the law requires—and that this planning actually begins at birth and reflects the goal of living-wage employment in adulthood.
  • Students with disabilities have access to all available diploma options and have the option of pursing a rigorous path of choice.
  • The certificate of completion continues to be an option, but only for the 1 percent of students who have significant cognitive disabilities.

The commissioners do not want to see students “opt out of rigor” by choosing a less challenging path of study in high school. They also believe that every child deserves every chance to succeed in school, and that a central aspect of creating this opportunity involves “changing the hearts and minds of people” about transition planning.

Teacher Credentialing

The ACSE welcomed updates from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on its efforts to redefine credentialing requirements for special educators. This work comes on the heels of a multi-year effort to redefine the credentialing requirements for general educators. The goal of the CTC is to align all requirements with new educational systems (i.e., MTSS) and practices (e.g., inclusion) as well as to prepare general educators to work with students with disabilities, to prepare special educators to work with students who do not have a defined disability, and to give both cohorts a “common trunk” of knowledge and competencies as well as the ability to collaborate for the good of all students.

The ACSE holds some concerns about these changes, among them the requirement of universal Teacher Performance Expectations (TPEs) and additional “bridge authorizations” that may place an added burden on special educators—one that is not commensurate with general education teacher requirements. At the same time, the ACSE appreciates the enormity of the CTC’s undertaking and its commitment to preparing all teachers to work within a unified system of education.

Mental Health

For more than three years the ACSE has maintained a Mental Health Subcommittee that has worked diligently to keep the commission apprised of all initiatives and legislation that address California’s need to improve mental health services for children and their families. The ACSE received information and updates on the following efforts to broaden, strengthen, and effectively coordinate mental health services:

  • The collaborative efforts of Breaking Barriers and the Children’s Trust to reframe behavioral health statewide as a wellness issue, to promote the value of prevention, to address issues related to mental health in the same way physical health is addressed, and to provide sufficient funding for adequate mental health services.
  • The Mental Health Services Act and its focus on prevention and early intervention strategies, community services and supports, innovation, technological needs and upgrades, and workforce education and training. The ACSE is hopeful that the act’s goal of integrating mental health services with educational strategies and promoting collaboration across all sectors will better serve students by improving their school and lifespan outcomes.
  • The School-County Collaborative Triage Grants, which are available to school-county collaborative initiatives to expand crisis intervention services in order to reduce the unnecessary use of police and emergency rooms, decrease recidivism rates, and increase access to services. These grants focus on addressing school failure and out-of-home placements in order to prevent suicide, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration among the state’s children.

State legislators have proposed numerous mental health bills during the year. Not all have progressed, but the general proliferation of these bills suggests that leaders are recognizing the state’s mental health crisis. The ACSE paid particular attention to the following:

  • Assembly Bill 898, to promote and provide incentives for collaboration among mental health agencies and services while requiring mental health care services in schools.
  • Senate Bill 686, to provide cradle-to-college services related to mental and physical health, education, wellness, and counseling in the most at-risk neighborhoods.
  • Assembly Bill 1646, to provide money to serve the mental health needs of very young children.
  • Assembly Bill 385, to ensure early screening for mental health issues for young children.

The ACSE also heard updates on the state’s Continuum of Care Reform and its work to redefine care for children and youth in foster care and in residential treatment centers. The commission appreciates the vision of this reform: streamlining the placement in home settings for foster children, limiting the amount of time they spend in group settings and treatment facilities, and creating for them the greatest chance of finding a permanent family. Yet the commission also holds concerns about the enormity of the change this reform represents, the ability of the system to address children’s needs during the system’s transition to its more family-care-based model, and the availability of appropriate placements when the transition is complete.

The ACSE holds additional concerns about the following: the profound mental health needs of some children and the ability of their schools, especially small charter schools, to provide those services; the use of special education as the default mental health service, particularly in elementary schools; the dearth of sufficient training for mental health service providers in schools; and the inconsistencies across the state in the placement of children for mental health services and the corollary inconsistency in the quality of those placements.

While California’s various mental health services were developed largely through separate and independent initiatives, the ACSE still believes that, with appropriate incentives, the many disparate agencies and services can work together as an articulated and coordinated system that includes school districts and county mental health agencies. In sum, the ACSE remains committed to a comprehensive system of quality mental health care that is easily accessible to all families and children.

The Student Voice

ACSE student commissioners serve to keep the organization grounded in its first purpose: attending to what is best for students. Current Student Commissioner Mike Infante’s grit, graciousness, and intelligence have served as an inspiration to the commission throughout this meeting year. His honesty and candor about bullying in schools have highlighted for the commission the importance of school climate and culture, equity and access, and inclusion. He has grown into a compelling advocate for others with disabilities, and the ACSE is honored by his presence.

ACSE Procedures

The ACSE is acutely aware of its responsibilities as an advisory body and is committed to fulfilling its charge to serve the best interest of students with disabilities. In order to maintain the highest degree of integrity, the ACSE regularly examines its own processes and reviews the Bagley-Keene Act, which defines the rights of the general public regarding ACSE meetings and communications. This review led the ACSE to revisit its bylaws and revise election processes for the chair and vice chair to make the election process more transparent.

The ACSE also re-introduced a policy and planning meeting before its regularly scheduled public meetings, with the goals of enhancing meeting structures and content, addressing procedural issues, managing the expectations of what the commission as an advisory body is able to accomplish, and ensuring that meeting agendas are developed solely by ACSE commissioners.

ACSE Strategic Plan and Legislative Platform

The Advisory Commission on Special Education is committed to one coherent system of education that ensures that students with disabilities receive a high-quality education. By advocating for and supporting (a) initiatives that promote inclusion; (b) the successful completion of high school; (c) college, career, and community readiness; (d) access to necessary educational services; and (e) adequate funding, the ACSE seeks to help California realize this vision of one system. During the 2018–2019 meeting year, the ACSE studied the Rights of the Child (59–61; 8-10) and used these rights to inform its strategic plan and legislative platform, and to intensify its focus so that it filters every activity and consideration through this lens: the rights and needs of each child in the state.

In consequence, the ACSE supports legislation and initiatives that reflect the following considerations:

  • Student Centered: Ensure that all students are general education students first and that they receive universal supports, meaningful access to core curriculum, and challenging content standards. Ensure that educators support students to develop skills that prepare them to be civically engaged, independent learners, and college and career ready.
  • Learning Outcomes: Ensure that instruction is universally designed and differentiated to meet the needs of the whole child. Ensure that assessments are aligned to instruction with appropriate supports and accommodations and/or modifications in place to provide opportunity for students to fully demonstrate knowledge, skills and growth.
  • MTSS: Ensure a coherent model built on a framework of a Multitiered System of Supports (MTSS), including academic, behavioral, and social-emotional supports using data-driven decision-making and evidence-based interventions that are supportive of the strengths and needs of students in the most inclusive and equitable learning environment.
  • Family-Community: Build and strengthen infrastructures that promote and sustain collaboration between schools and families to ensure active and meaningful family engagement and create trusting family and community partnerships in a culturally responsive manner.
  • Transition: Emphasize early post-secondary transition planning to ensure that all students have access to the full range of career and technical pathways aimed at building independence and self-sufficiency through post-secondary education and/or meaningful paid employment opportunities.

The Goal Award

The commission’s GOAL—Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning—Award began in 2007 with a generous financial contribution from film producer Brian Grazer. Grazer charged the commission with using the money to recognize and support exemplary programs and individuals who contribute to the school success of students with disabilities. The California Department of Education has chosen to continue to support the award in perpetuity.

After a competitive statewide application and review process, the ACSE awarded the 2019 GOAL Award to the Unified Champion School Program at Trabuco Hills High School in Southern California.

The level of the program’s commitment to inclusion for students with disabilities and the quality and extent of its inclusive efforts make this program at Trabuco Hills a worthy recipient of the award. The “unified” element guides the program’s every effort to provide all students with rich and varied opportunities to lead, engage, learn, compete, and succeed in school and in their communities. The goal of the Unified Champion School Program is to give all students the tools and experience they need to help break down social barriers faced by individuals with disabilities and to make the world a more fully inclusive place.

This goal has led to a culture change for Trabuco Hills that has been developing for years. In 2000, the school started a Best Buddies program in an effort to end the social isolation of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The program gives these students the time and opportunity to form meaningful friendships with their peers and to improve their self-advocacy and communication skills.

Unified Champions began at Trabuco Hills in 2015 with the Special Olympics Unified Champions Schools Program, which also is designed to promote social inclusion for students with disabilities but by intentionally planning system-wide change through sports and other activities. From its inception, the program’s goal was to create a climate of acceptance on sports teams and in other clubs, within classrooms, and throughout the entire school so that students with disabilities feel welcomed and are routinely included in everything—from lunchroom tables to scholarship opportunities.

Unified Sports capitalized on the established structure of Best Buddies by organizing its first team with 12 students with disabilities who signed up to play basketball and 12 Best Buddies, who supported the basketball players on and off the court. In 2016, with the support of the CDE and a partnership with Special Olympics, the school was charged with developing unified sports statewide. Through the efforts of Unified Champions, nine more schools have created unified sports programs that have contributed to increased school-wide inclusivity. The number of these programs promises to continue to grow—as has Unified Champions in Trabuco Hills. The school has introduced unified football, soccer, volleyball, and bowling teams. Unified sports teams are included in every pep rally, and this past year nearly 100 general education students signed up to be part of the program.

The school has extended the health and wellness component of athletics to its physical education classroom, where students with disabilities are paired up in a Best Buddies fashion with students without disabilities, and together they learn the PE curriculum. According to Kara Johnson, special educator and the district liaison for Unified Champions, “All students involved in Unified PE are more engaged in what they’re learning.” The program has also generated outside interest. “We’ve had more than 60 visitors coming to visit the class” to see how inclusive PE can work, she says. In addition, some parents of students with disabilities are choosing to send their children to Trabuco Hills because of the Unified Champions program.

It wasn’t easy to get the program up and running, Johnson says, but today it is healthy and expanding. The unified approach has extended beyond sports to include theater, vocal performance, and ceramics, which are all incorporating the Best Buddies approach. The program has also created leadership opportunities for students with disabilities to speak publicly, give presentations, and attend the local and national meetings of Unified Leaders.

“When these students are fully engaged and involved in inclusive activities,” says Johnson, “you cannot tell who has a disability and who doesn’t.” It’s clear that in Trabuco Hills, it doesn’t matter.

Key Topics

The ACSE attended to several key topics that acutely affect the quality of education for students with disabilities, particularly as the instruction they receive influences their success.

Multitiered System of Support

The ACSE has followed the efforts of the SUMS Initiative—Scale-up MTSS Statewide—to establish MTSS in the state’s LEAs. From a SUMS presentation, the ACSE learned of the importance of executing MTSS with fidelity throughout a district to ensure the principle of equity. SUMS is working to address this challenge by strengthening inclusive academic, social-emotional, and behavioral instruction, along with family and community engagement, administrative leadership, and policies that promote inclusion.

The initiative is working to prepare and place new educators who know how to work within MTSS and can find employment in schools where MTSS has been successfully adopted. While there is no adopted MTSS framework in California, the commission sees the work of SUMS as foundational to equity and inclusion and remains optimistic that the inherent value of the approach will take hold and MTSS will become the organizational standard in California’s LEAs.  

LRE Research

Educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE) is a principal mandate of IDEA. As such, the ACSE welcomed a report from the Ventura County Office of Education about its research on the effect that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has on their school performance. The findings confirmed commissioners’ belief and experience: students who spend more time in general education classrooms perform better in both English language arts and mathematics than students who spend less time in general education settings. In fact, “there are huge differences with students who are spending more time in general education,” according to the report, and “students can be well below standard in their scores, and we can still predict that they would still do significantly better in gen ed.”

The ACSE sees these findings as confirmation of the importance of general education as the first placement for all students. The commission applauds the effort behind this research, which reflects an unprecedented level of cooperation throughout Ventura County and has delivered a compelling message about the importance of inclusion for student

Assistive Technology

The ACSE would like everyone in the state who has a disability, and those who care for them, to know about Ability Tools, a program that provides assistive technology tools and services to individuals of all ages who have a disability as well as to their parents, teachers, schools, and LEAs. Funded with state and federal money since 1998, Ability Tools has evolved into a network of device-lending
libraries throughout the state. The program also provides information and referral, training, and technical assistance. The California Foundation for Independent Living Centers manages the program and explained its services to the ACSE. The program also makes it possible for individuals to sample various devices so that students, families, and IEP team members can be sure that the assistive technology they choose is the most effective for each student.

A Look Ahead

The ACSE studied dozens of topics during its 2018–2019 meeting year, among them mental health initiatives, the California Schools Dashboard, the Scale-up MTSS Statewide effort, accountability and assessment refinements, the statewide System of Support, and the evolving educational data system. Each of these elements helps to ensure effective instruction and contributes to accurate accountability. Taken together, they also reflect a newly increased level of coherence and alignment in the state that did not exist even five years ago.

The very composition of the commission itself reflects this unity. The recently elected chair, Somer Harding, is an elementary school principal with a background in general education. This background marks an historical first for the ACSE—a chair who rose professionally through the ranks of general education, not special education. It is the commission’s belief that Harding’s commitment to all of her students, without regard for label and without separation or exclusion, simply echoes a new direction and attitude, not just within the commission but across the state’s educational landscape and throughout the climate of California schools—a landscape of coordinated systems and services and a climate of inclusion and belonging, all of which promise new opportunities for improvement and quality.

As it looks forward to its 2019–2020 meeting year, the ACSE anticipates continued progress among these coordinated efforts toward a more seamless, aligned system. Primarily the commission welcomes every opportunity to ensure improved school outcomes for all students.

A directory of the commissioners and others who serve on the ACSE, along with dates and locations for the meetings in 2020–2021, can be found on the ACSE website:
To view ACSE meetings via live webcast, go to