Special education sparks new arguments

Reopening a controversial topic, special education advocates Wednesday cautioned a state task force about recommending sweeping change in how Louisiana aids children with disabilities.

Charles Michel, secretary for the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators, urged a panel studying ways to revamp the way public schools are funded to steer clear of an earlier plan pushed by state Superintendent of Education John White, who is on the committee.

Michel charged that there is “nothing transparent or collaborative” about the overhaul and that the proposal is based in part on a false premise that special education students in Louisiana suffer in comparison to their peers elsewhere.

Possible changes in special education rules were a key theme during the first meeting of the 21-member task force, which is supposed to focus on how the state spends $3.5 billion per year for public schools.

The group is supposed to meet four times, then make recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education early next year before BESE makes its 2014-15 funding request to the Legislature.

However, concerns about the resurrection of White’s proposal a smaller version of it failed in the Legislature earlier this year was a common topic.

White initially proposed changes in how the state aids about 82,000 special education students.

The state spends $313 million per year for its special education population, with aid based on the number of students.

The superintendent proposed gradually spending the money based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

White said the state’s 29 percent high school graduation rate for students with disabilities was one of the reasons that changes are needed.

But Belinda Davis, the mother of three children in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said Texas and other states with higher graduation rates offer easier paths to a diploma than Louisiana.

Davis said Texas students qualify for a high school diploma if they fulfill their individualized education plan.

She said that, aside from Mississippi, Louisiana has the strictest graduation standards in the nation for special education students.

Stephen Waguespack, a BESE member who is on the task force, said the issue needs scrutiny.

Waguespack said “a lot of parents feel like they are lost at sea” when trying to navigate aid for their children with disabilities.

He said he has visited charter schools where special education aid works well, in part because local administrators enjoy considerable authority.

Rana Ottalah, a task force member who lives in Metairie and whose daughter has a hearing impairment, said the state needs to make sure that special education dollars are actually spent for special education services.

Ottalah said that, in some cases, decisions by local school officials are nixed by school district educators.

In other areas, Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said school aid is spread thin because the state is essentially funding three systems: traditional public schools, charters and vouchers.

Walker-Jones also said the state has long ignored the impact of poverty on public schools.

“That is part of the issue we have to confront,” he said.