Feds wary of La. special ed law

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  The Louisiana State Capitol Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The Louisiana State Capitol

Critics say lower standards likely result

A new state law that will allow special education students a different route to a high school diploma may violate federal laws and could jeopardize Louisiana’s public school aid, U.S. Department of Education officials have told state Superintendent of Education John White.

The measure, House Bill 1015, breezed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal last month.

But it has triggered a split between state and local disability advocates, who hailed passage of the measure, and some national advocacy organizations, which have said it would pave the way for low standards for students with disabilities.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Education, in a letter to White dated July 2, made some of the same points as those raised by the national groups.

The state law may run afoul of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as other federal rules, said Michael K. Yudin, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and Deborah S. Delisle, assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, in their letter.

“A significant concern raised by HB No. 1015 is that it treats students with disabilities differently because it permits them to be promoted, graduate, and receive a diploma when they have failed to pass state assessments and meet benchmarks that other students are required to meet,” Yudin and Delisle wrote.

To the extent that the law is implemented in a way that violates federal rules, it “may put at risk” Louisiana’s federal school aid, they wrote.

White, who was out of town Tuesday, issued a prepared statement that said, “These are legitimate concerns that can be resolved with appropriate implementation” of the law.

He said previously that, since his agency and Louisiana’s top school board are charged with crafting rules that govern the revamped system, that process will be crucial to its success.

Under current rules, most high school students with disabilities face the same standardized exams as their peers, which critics say poses a huge roadblock to graduation.

The key change in the statute would allow a special education student’s advisory team to hammer out an alternative way to graduation, regardless of how the student fares on standardized tests.

Those teams will be allowed to spell out alternative “rigorous” routes to graduation, devise instructional programs and offer novel ways of teaching.

Supporters contend the overhaul simply mirrors what many states already offer students with disabilities.

Critics say the law gives the advisory panels — which put together Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs — too much leeway to devise their own criteria for what a student needs to earn a diploma.

The federal officials’ letter says one way the Louisiana law may run afoul of federal law is by setting different academic standards for students with disabilities.

Asked if Jindal wanted to comment, the Governor’s Office issued a statement saying the law strikes a balance in ensuring that special education students perform at high academic levels while also opening new pathways to a high school diploma.

“We will encourage the Louisiana Department of Education to make sure it is enacted in accordance with federal law,” according to the statement.

The state has about 70,000 special education students.

They include children with learning disabilities, speech and language barriers, autism and hearing and vision problems.

About 29 percent earn traditional high school diplomas, which has sparked a variety of proposals and controversy since early 2013.

The fact that federal officials have taken notice of the state law was first reported by Education Week magazine.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.