How the governor tried to eliminate mental health services for schoolchildren
On Oct. 8 , the same day that the Legislature passed the state budget, Gov. Schwarzenneger unceremoniously line-item vetoed funding for AB 3632 services, stating that his “policy is to suspend mandates not related to elections, law enforcement, or property taxes in order to maintain a prudent reserve.” With that metaphorical pen stroke, the governor placed at even greater risk thousands of already vulnerable children and youth — those who need educationally-related mental health services, including day therapy, day treatment, and even residential care.
President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called the cuts to school-based mental health services “misguided, cruel, unnecessary and preventable.” The director of Special Education for the California Department of Education decried the “chaos” that resulted as county mental health agencies, which provide AB 3632 (a.k.a. Chapter 26.5) mental health services, began to inform school districts that those services would no longer be forthcoming.
What’s interesting about this story is just how uninteresting the public and the media find a $132.9 million cut to an educational program so necessary to a relatively small group of children. What’s equally interesting is just how vital and diverse are the services, like AB 3632 services, that schools and other public agencies provide to our children. It’s not just English Language Arts, standardized tests, and API scores.
Federal special education law requires that states provide children with mental illness the services and support they need to benefit from their education. About 25 years ago, California — breaking from nearly all other states — adopted AB 3632 to shift the provision of those services from school districts to mental health professionals in county mental health agencies. The promise of the arrangement was that school districts would be relieved of providing mental health counseling services, classrooms that provide mental health therapy and behavioral intervention, and residential treatment. Instead, the folks whose business is mental health — licensed mental health professionals — would better meet the counseling and therapeutic needs of students. The shift was also deemed a mandate on county mental health agencies that the state was obliged to reimburse. While this inter-agency sharing of responsibility has not been without its flaws (go here for a detailed description of AB 3632 and some challenges it has encountered), it has been largely successful and indeed essential for the children it serves.
The fallout from the governor’s veto was that county mental health agencies began to warn school districts that they would stop taking referrals, wind down services that they were providing, and essentially punt the obligation to provide mental health services back to the school districts. Advocates for children with disabilities immediately began receiving panicked phone calls from parents whose children were at risk of losing services, including more than one parent whose child’s individualized educational plan team had already agreed that residential services were necessary because the child posed a suicide risk.
Despite flying under the media’s radar screen, the response to the veto from mental health advocates and disability rights organizations was swift. A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court under federal special education laws to ensure that no child was denied services. Another from the California School Boards Association, challenging the legality of using the line-item veto to effectively suspend the mental health services program, followed on its heels. Fortunately, outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell recognized the chaos caused by the governor’s action and stepped in to pull the children out of harm’s way by releasing state Department of Education funds to cover temporary AB 3632 costs. While this move plugs the dike momentarily, the risk remains.
Now, readers of this blog are among the most savvy and sophisticated educational policy folks in the state. But before you read this, had you heard about this crisis caused by the governor’s pen? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly wasn’t big news. Yet it exemplifies the essential services that our schools and public agencies provide to our diverse population of kids. And, unfortunately, it exemplifies just how easy it is to eliminate those services because they amount to no more than a rounding error in our behemoth state budget.
As the Legislature goes about the task of trimming even more from this year’s education budget, children who get counseling, therapy, and life-saving residential treatment hope that this time the Legislature won’t round down.
Bill Koski is the Eric & Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education, Professor of Law, and Professor of Education (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He is the founder and director of the law school’s Youth and Education Law Project and has represented hundreds of disadvantaged children and their families in educational equity, disability rights, and school reform matters. Reflecting his multidisciplinary background as a lawyer and social scientist, Professor Koski’s scholarly work focuses on the related issues of educational accountability, equity, and adequacy; the politics of educational policy reform; and judicial decision-making in educational policy reform litigation.