La. has second-lowest graduation rate for public special education students

Louisiana has the second-lowest public high school graduation rate in the nation for special education students, according to federal figures.

The rate in Louisiana, 29 percent, is only lower than Mississippi and Nevada, statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education show. The graduation rate in both those states is 23 percent.

South Dakota is tops in the nation at 84 percent, federal figures show. The national average is 58 percent.

Louisiana’s dismal rate is one of the key drivers behind state Superintendent of Education John White’s push to revamp the way the state finances special education.

Under current rules the state allocates special education dollars to local school districts based on the number of students classified that way regardless of disability. Under White’s plan, state aid would be allocated based on three factors — the type of disability, what setting is used to educate the student and how the student fares in the classroom.

Backers say the overhaul would move the state away from a cookie-cutter approach and target aid in a way that improves the special education graduation rate.

White said 12 other states use similar approaches.

The superintendent outlined his proposal to the Special Education Advisory Panel, a 17-member panel of parents, educators and others that advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

White is expected to discuss the issue again on Thursday at 9 a.m. when he appears before the Superintendents Advisory Council, an influential panel of local school leaders from around the state.

Special education funding changes could also be a key topic next month when BESE approves its annual funding request to the Legislature, which includes state aid for special education students.

Louisiana’s public special education population totals about 82,000 students. The state spends about $313 million per year on their education.

The U.S. Department of Education graduation figures cover a four-year period that ended with the 2010-11 school year.

The state’s overall high school graduation rate is 71 percent. That rate trails every state except Alaska, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon and is tied with Florida.

Idaho, Oklahoma and Kentucky are not listed.

Michael Faulk, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said while he wants to know more details of White’s plan, it has already sparked concerns among some special education directors. “We are waiting to hear a full explanation,” Faulk said in an interview on Monday.

He said one concern is whether dividing state aid based on disabilities could cause concerns about discrimination.

“There are a lot of dynamics,” said Faulk, who is superintendent of the Central school system. “It is something that we would really have to look at.”

Holly Boffy, a member of BESE and co-chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Panel, said White’s presentation on Friday sparked varied reactions.

“My takeaway is that they felt very comfortable and even excited about the concept,” said Boffy, who lives in Youngsville.

“But there were concerns about how do you actually do this,’’ she said.