Superintendents wary of special education overhaul

Superintendents need to see the impact on their schools before deciding whether to back a statewide overhaul of special education funding, the chairman of the group said Thursday morning.

“For us to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ we really have see the impact on our districts,” said Michael Faulk, chairman of the 21-member public Superintendents Advisory Council.

State Superintendent of Education John White said simulations that spell out the initial effect of the changes on the state’s 70 school districts will be available next week.

White wants to revamp Louisiana’s funding method so that state aid for special education students is based on the type of disability, what setting is used to educate the student and academic performance.

Under current rules, the state allocates dollars strictly on the basis of whether a student is classified as special education.

Those students qualify for 150 percent of what rank-and-file students get in state aid.

“Today’s model is you put a label on a child and you get money,” White said.

The high school graduation rate for special education students in Louisiana is 29 percent, which is the second-lowest rate in the nation and a key driving force behind the plan.

White told local superintendents that he wants the changes phased in over three years starting with the 2013-14 school year.

However, the proposal sparked questions and concerns during a meeting that lasted for more than two hours.

“I am not sure where we are headed,” said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system and one of the most outspoken members of the council.

“I am not saying I am in favor or opposed,” Voitier said. “I don’t know enough.”

Winn Parish school Superintendent Steve Bartlett was more blunt.

“I think it is a good system that we are operating under now,” Bartlett told the group.

He said his views on the plan will largely depend on whether the Winn Parish school system gains or loses state dollars.

“I really can’t talk intelligently about it because I don’t know how it affects my district,” Bartlett said.

White told local school leaders that the impact would be minimal, especially since it would be phased in over three years.

The state spends $313 million a year to assist about 82,000 special education students.

White said 12 states, including Texas, use weighted models similar to what Louisiana is considering.

Louisiana is one of seven states that allocate dollars strictly on the basis of the special education student head count.

Last Friday, the Special Education Advisory Panel, which assists Louisiana’s top school board, voted to delay action on any overhaul in favor of more study.

In addition Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, told the group Thursday that his organization favors a task force study on the issue.

Duties of the council include advocacy for those with developmental disabilities.

Jacob Landry, chief strategy officer for the Jefferson Parish school system, said officials there are open to the kind of changes proposed by White.

Landry said his district has about 5,000 special education students.

Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery School District, also made positive comments about the plan.

Landry formerly oversaw charter schools for the state Department of Education. Dobard was named to his post by White.

The only states with special education graduation rates lower than Louisiana are Mississippi and Nevada.

Both are at 23 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to review the issue during its March 7-8 meeting.

BESE is about to make its public school funding request to the Legislature, which could include changes in how special education students are financed.