Public schools Special Education overhaul proposed by state

Only 29 percent of special education students in Louisiana are graduating from public high schools, and how the state supports them needs to be overhauled, state Superintendent of Education John White said Friday.

“We are not where we want to be,” White said.

He said that, under current methods, special education students have less than a one in three chance of leaving high school with a diploma.

“That is a civil rights crisis,” White said.

The superintendent unveiled his plan to the Special Education Advisory Panel, which includes educators, parents and others who advise the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, called BESE.

Any bid to make changes in special education aid could be a key topic when BESE next month debates its annual funding request to the Legislature. The regular legislative session begins April 8.

White was peppered with questions and concerns on Friday during an hour-long briefing for special education advocates.

The national graduation rate for students with disabilities is unclear.

However, the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs has said the rate is usually around 57 percent.

Louisiana’s overall public high school graduation rate was 71 percent in 2011.

The state has 82,376 special education students, which is about 12 percent of the public school population, according to the state Department of Education.

About $313 million per year is spent to aid children with a wide range of disabilities, including speech or language impediments, various mental disabilities, hearing issues, deafness or vision problems, and autism.

White said the key problem is the state spends the same amount of money for all special education students — 150 percent of what rank-and-file students get — regardless of their disabilities.

“The money is the same for every strategy,” the superintendent said.

He said there is also insufficient oversight on how local districts educate those children and how they fare in the classroom.

White said the new rules would link state aid to:

Specific disabilities.

Where and how the student is educated.

Academic performance.

Under the proposed overhaul, one-third of the funding equation would be based on the needs of the child, which could range from a speech or language impairment in the lowest category to autism or brain injuries in the highest category.

White said such an approach would recognize that different disabilities require different levels of spending.

The plan would also base funding in part on the level of expenses associated with educating the student, including time in classrooms, hospitals, residential facilities or other locations.

Finally, one-third of state aid would be based on how special education students fare in the classroom, including whether they meet or exceed annual state academic improvement targets.

White repeatedly said any revamp would be phased in and would not have any dramatic impact on overall funding levels.

He said he plans to discuss the issue with public school superintendents and others in upcoming weeks.

But several members of the special ed panel said any reduction in state aid for special education students, even if it is aimed at better targeting needs, could cause problems.

“I don’t think if they get less money they are going to think differently,” Susan Vaughn, a member of the 17-member committee, said of local school officials.

Cindy Arceneaux, co-chairwoman of the panel, told White that current problems go beyond funding levels. “It’s much more than the amount of money,” Arceneaux said.

Holly Boffy, co-chairwoman of the panel and a member of BESE, said complications associated with any redesign of how the state aids special education students should not keep it from being considered.

The issue stems in part from a special education bill last year that was sponsored by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. Claitor said Friday the issue needs study because of the spectrum of disabilities.

He said the state “ought to be cognizant of that” so that resources for students are allocated fairly.