Special ed overhaul called 'monumental'

Louisiana’s education establishment faces a huge challenge implementing a controversial new law to make it easier for high school students to earn a high school diploma, superintendents said Thursday.

“The bottom line is it is going to be a very difficult process,” said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system and president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

“We just all have to recognize we are going to have significant problems with this,” Voitier said.

The issue was the dominant topic during a nearly two-hour meeting of the Superintendents’ Advisory Council, an influential panel that advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

BESE is set to take up the issue on Aug. 12-13.

The overhaul stems from House Bill 1015, which won approval during the 2014 legislative session.

Under current rules, most high school students with disabilities face the same standardized tests as their peers, which critics say is key reason less than a third of those students earn traditional high school diplomas.

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

The law has set off arguments in the state’s special education community.

In addition, officials of the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to state Superintendent of Education John White on July 2 that said the law may violate federal laws and jeopardize federal aid to public schools.

White, who said earlier that the key will be how the law is implemented, told local superintendents Thursday that doing so poses a major challenge.

“Obviously it is a monumental process,” he said. “This is going to be a long road.”

The state has about 70,000 special education students, including those with learning disabilities, speech and language barriers and hearing and vision problems.

White said one of the key initial issues is which students will be eligible for the new graduation paths.

Another crucial topic, he said, it the role of the student’s advisory team, which oversees the Individualized Education Program.

Under the law, the IEP teams have the authority to spell out alternative routes to graduation, devise instructional programs and offer novel ways of teaching.

Bernard Taylor, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, questioned whether IEP teams have the needed expertise to handle their new roles.

Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central Community School System, said the new rules have to apply the same statewide.

“What is going to be difficult is consistency in the process,” Faulk said.

James Meza, superintendent of the Jefferson Parish School District, said up to 1,000 students in his system may ask to be reassessed in light of the new law.

Backers say the changes are in line with special education regulations in other states. Critics argue that it gives IEP advisory teams too much authority.

They also say it puts too much pressure on parents to decide whether to pursue alternative paths to graduation at the risk of leaving high school ill-prepared for a meaningful job.

Once students earn a high school diploma, they are ineligible for free special education aid.

“We need training for parents,” said Rana Ottallah, who lives in Metairie and is a member of the Special Education Advisory Panel.

“This is a big decision,” Ottallah said.

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