Special-education rules spark advocate arguments

How to trim Louisiana’s dismal graduation rate for special-education students sparked heated disagreements Thursday among advocates for children with disabilities.

Larry Alexander, an official of the state Department of Education, said state plans to overhaul its long-troubled career education program can help students better prepare for a career and earn a diploma.

But some advocates said state leaders need to totally rethink how special-education students earn high school diplomas.

“We really need to look at how we define success,” said Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council.

The issue surfaced during a meeting of the Special Education Advisory Panel, which advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The panel eventually voted to endorse the overhaul outlined by Alexander, which is called Jump Start.

It also asked the state Department of Education to consider major changes in how the state decides if students qualify for a diploma.

Some of the debate stems from controversy last year when state Superintendent of Education John White called for changes in state aid for special-education students since only 29 percent graduate from public high schools, which is one of the lowest rates in the nation.

The state has about 83,000 special-education students, including those with speech or language impediments, various mental disabilities, hearing issues, deafness or vision problems and autism.

Alexander said Jump Start will be debated by BESE on March 6 and offer students with disabilities a chance to get career training aligned to their skills and interests.

He said the state also plans to convene a task force on how the new career training can help students not now expected to earn a diploma.

Jump Start is touted as a way for school districts, colleges and businesses to re-energize career and technical education and ensure that students have the technical skills needed to land top-paying jobs.

Fleming, who made a presentation at the request of several panel members, said the state needs a new approach in deciding whether special education students qualify for a diploma, with heavy input from the student’s Individual Education Program team, or IEP.

Critics contend one reason Louisiana’s special-education graduation rate is so low is because the state has stricter standards than other states, including passage on state tests that pose major hurdles.

Under the plan outlined by Fleming, IEP teams would establish rigorous goals for the student, decide whether they should move to the next grade and whether their performance on state assessments meets expectations, not just the state’s passing marks.

The proposal, which was sent to White earlier, is backed by Fleming’s group, the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators, Families Helping Families of Greater Baton Rouge, Inc. and others.

The panel asked the department to consider the outline.

Rana Ottallah, a member of the panel, criticized the proposed overhaul.

Ottallah, who lives in Metairie, said the change would amount to lowering the bar for special-education students and create a special education diploma.

“We should not just hand out diplomas,” she said.

Susan Vaughn, another member of the panel and director of special education for the Ascension Parish school system, backed Fleming’s proposal and disputed Ottallah’s arguments.

Vaughn said that, under existing rules, students with disabilities are “prisoners” of the state’s accountability system.

She added that, while BESE will vote on Jump Start next month, any task force to focus on the needs of special education students has not even begun.

Holly Boffy, a member of BESE from Youngsville and co-chairman of the panel, said she had problems with Fleming’s proposal because a high school diploma is how the state communicates with employers to let them know students are prepared for the workforce.

If the requirements are lax, Boffy said, “then the diploma doesn’t mean anything.”