Proposed special education overhaul debated

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Susan Vaughn, director of special education for the Ascension Parish school system, is among officials with questions about state Superintendent of Education John White's plan to overhaul the way the state aids special education students. 'Our major concern is that we need to keep the individual child in mind,' Vaughn said Friday.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Susan Vaughn, director of special education for the Ascension Parish school system, is among officials with questions about state Superintendent of Education John White's plan to overhaul the way the state aids special education students. 'Our major concern is that we need to keep the individual child in mind,' Vaughn said Friday.

Rana Ottallah, whose 7-year-old daughter Dalia has a hearing impairment, said Louisiana’s method for aiding special education students is broken.

“If something is not done to help her and all the other kids to do better, she is unlikely to graduate from high school with a diploma,” said Ottallah, who lives in Metairie.

But a plan to overhaul the system, driven largely by the state’s 29 percent high school graduation rate for special education students, is sparking questions and resistance.

State Superintendent of Education John White, the chief advocate of the overhaul, wants to set up a system where state aid is based in part on a child’s disability, such as a speech or language impairment, mental disability or autism.

Critics contend that linking aid to specific disabilities can lead to students getting labels that draw the most dollars.

“Are we putting kids in special education just to get money?” asked St. Bernard Parish School District Superintendent Doris Voitier during a briefing on White’s plan last week.

The proposal has put a spotlight on the state’s roughly 82,000 public special education students, who draw $313 million per year in state aid; what, if any, changes are launched, including a three-year phase-in for a new system, may be decided by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 7-8.

Under current rules, all students with that classification get 150 percent of what the state spends on rank-and-file students.

White wants to replace that with a funding method in which one third of aid is based on disabilities, one third on what setting is used to educate the student and one third on academic performance. He said the fact that Louisiana has the second lowest graduation rate in the nation for special education students cries out for attention.

“I do think that we need fundamental change,” White told the Superintendents Advisory Council on Thursday.

Ottallah agreed.

“Whatever has been happening so far is not working,” she said.

But Susan Vaughn, director of special education for the Ascension Parish school system, said how a student is labeled does not always fit the services needed.

Under White’s proposal, a student with autism would qualify for the highest level of state aid under the disability part of the proposed formula.

“We may have a child who is classified as autistic in regular education who needs very little support,” Vaughn said. “Or we may have one with autism that needs a teacher one on one.

“So the cost differential between those two is very, very different. That is part of the concern.”

Vaughn and Ottallah are both members of the Special Education Advisory Panel, a 17-member group that advises BESE.

After hearing White’s plans to revamp the system, the panel decided to delay action on any makeover.

Superintendents say they want to see the impact of any overhaul on their districts, which they may learn this week.

Officials of the state Department of Education released figures that show 12 states use multiple measures, which Louisiana is considering, to fund special education.

That list includes Texas, which has a 77 percent special education graduation rate; Iowa, 70 percent; and Ohio, 67 percent.

Elizabeth Marcell, a member of the Special Education Advisory Panel, said in an email that she largely favors White’s plan “and its emphasis on outcomes rather than inputs.”

However, Marcell said she has concerns about basing funding in part on the disability attached to the student.

That approach “can be problematic,” she said.

Marcell is executive director of intervention services for ReNEW Schools, a charter management organization in New Orleans.

How much funding weight-specific individual disabilities would get under the new funding method has already been changed once.

State education officials said that, after getting feedback from interested groups, the money formula was changed to one that also includes how the student is educated — such as school, home or hospital — and academic results.

Even experts disagree on how much state funding should be linked to specific disabilities.

Tom Parrish, deputy director of the Center for Special Education Finance at the American Institutes for Research, was consulted by state officials during preparation of the superintendent’s plan.

AIR is a social science research firm in Washington, D.C., that does work for the federal government and state and local entities.

“I think it is a positive way to go,” Parrish said of White’s plan.

He said he likes linking part of the aid to academic results.

Parrish said it is next to impossible to devise a funding method that avoids financial incentives to label students.

But Lou Danielson, managing director at the American Institutes for Research, said even well-meaning special education funding systems can include financial incentives for certain classifications of students.

If you fund autistic students at a higher rate “then you will see a hike” in the numbers with that label, he said.

“States are fully cognizant of that,” Danielson said. “For the most part, they have tended to move away from funding formulas like that.”