Assembly Bill 3632: Mental Health Special Education Needs Mandate

The legislation, the Governor’s proposed suspension, and the issues.

In 1976, the U.S. Congress guaranteed children with special needs the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), which included necessary related services. In California, the passage of Assembly Bill 3632 in 1984, assigned county mental health departments the responsibility for providing students with mental health services.

Since passage of AB 3632, county mental health agencies have provided special needs children with services that address mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity, disruptive behavior disorders, depression, and bi-polar disorders. The services that have proven so successful in providing for the wellness and well-being of these children include mental health assessments, case management, individual and group therapy, rehabilitative counseling, day treatment and medication support. These services have a positive affect on countless numbers of children’s lives.

At a time when the rates of teen depression, addictions, eating disorders, autism spectrum disabilities, drop-out rates and even suicides are increasing, the Governor proposes suspension of AB 3632. It is reprehensible that he is considering eliminating or even reducing services that address such critical issues.

Suspending AB3632 is considered a critical issue by mental health agencies, disability advocates and school agencies because students with special needs would face disruption and even loss of mental health services. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), when assessing the Governor’s proposal, expressed a number of concerns with his approach noting that suspension would be temporary, confusing and disruptive. The proposal does not address the significant transitional issues associated with the change. Furthermore, elimination of AB3632 funding could violate federal special education spending maintenance-of-effort requirements.

Federal law includes a requirement that mental health services be provided to children in special education in order that they fully benefit from their public education. AB3632 ensures that mental health services are provided to all students who qualify for them by mandating counties’ participation. Prior to 1984, schools were entirely responsible for providing mental health services. To date, the State has never fully reimbursed counties for these services which has forced counties, including Santa Cruz, to find funding elsewhere in their budgets. The State Department of Mental Health reported to the Legislature that claims from counties for the past three State budget years totaled $211.9 million. Of that amount, the State has paid back only $51.2 million against claims already submitted.

The Governor’s proposed suspension would eliminate $52 million in State general funds and delay, or defer, $133 million in unpaid claims. The suspension would also mean that counties would not be responsible for providing these mental health services – that responsibility and cost would fall back on already overtaxed court systems, public health agencies and school districts.

School and community mental health advocates feel that suspension will create chaos, confusion and leave many students unserved. Mental health agencies are experts critical in the process to assist educators in determining the needs of the students, the available services and how to provide them. Prior to passage of AB 3632, local education agencies were unable to solely meet the requirements of providing needed mental health services. To revert to that silo model would be a travesty.

Meeting the financial crisis in California head-on requires that we accept that there will be change – adverse change in terms of funding. However, we must be prepared to meet these challenges and continue to providing for the well-being and continued success of all students through means other than continual cuts in services. The LAO has proposed that suspension of AB 3632 be delayed for a period of one year to address transitional issues. I support that recommendation as well as the LAO’s suggestion that a statewide work group be convened to ensure a thoughtful transition that includes issues related to funding for schools, county mental health’s role and continuity of care for students.

In Santa Cruz County, we are very fortunate to have a committed community of mental health and educational agencies that have collaborated over the years to efficiently provide effective services to our student population. We will build on our existing relationship in the transition process and the ensuing environment in which we must operate. Together, we will refocus as necessary to place emphasis on students’ educational needs to be successful in school.