N.O. project could serve as model for special ed revamp

A pilot project in New Orleans could pave the way for sweeping changes in how the state funds special education students.

The plan, which follows major controversy in the past year, is focused on providing services based on need for about 3,500 students in the Recovery School District, or RSD, in New Orleans. The pilot project in New Orleans bases funding on the student’s disability and the service provided.

Under current rules, most of Louisiana’s roughly 83,000 special education students get the same state aid regardless of their disability — generally 150 percent of what rank-and-file students get.

But state Superintendent of Education John White said the aim is to expand the New Orleans changes statewide, possibly for the 2015-16 school year. The pilot project would rearrange spending in a more equitable manner, he said.

“My hope is that we will be able to take this pilot in Orleans Parish and expand a similar framework statewide with the support of special education advocates and educators,” White said.

While issues remain, special education forces say the trial run in New Orleans could offer answers for a longstanding problem.

“We are all supportive of what they are doing in the RSD,” said Ashley McReynolds, a special education advocate who often testifies at meetings of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Legislature.

“We wanted to know why they aren’t doing it for all the other students in the state,” she said.

Special education aid has already spilled over to debate on the state’s $3.6 billion spending plan for public schools — Senate Concurrent Resolution 55 — and sparked a heated exchange between state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Debate on that state Senate-passed bill is set to resume in a House committee on Tuesday.

The issue stems in part from a little-noticed resolution sponsored by Claitor that won approval in 2012.

That legislation sought changes to what Claitor calls the state’s one-size-fits-all system for funding special education students. “The dollars are cookie-cutter dollars on whatever the disability is,” Claitor said.

“Everybody’s disability is very important and we want to respond to it,” he said. “But the fact is some disabilities require more services and dollars than others,” he said.

Last year, White proposed an overhaul in special education aid, in part because only 29 percent of those students are graduating from public high schools.

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

He said that under the new plan, state aid would be linked to specific disabilities, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

Critics disputed the 29 percent graduation rate, and they said White’s plan was put together without enough input from parents.

A scaled-down version of White’s plan was included in BESE’s public school spending request to the 2013 Legislature.

But that funding plan — called the Minimum Foundation Program — died.

“So we basically decided we were going to pilot in a different way in the RSD,” White said.

He said special education students attending the RSD’s 65 charter schools are funded on the basis of services and needs.

The academic-performance part of White’s original plan, including whether students met or exceeded academic improvement targets, is not included.

White noted that McReynolds has offered positive comments about the trial run during meetings on this year’s MFP legislation, which he called “kind of a breakthrough.”

“We had not reached a level of consensus,” he said.

McReynolds said White has moved from initial skepticism about funding based on specific needs to the RSD pilot project that he backs.

One of the problems now, she said, is that schools are often short of dollars to provide the services that the student’s IEP — Individual Education Plan — calls for.

By basing services on need, “we are not going to run into those problems,” she said.

However, finding state dollars to handle the often expensive array of services is one of several looming issues.

“Every parent wants to make sure their kid has the services they need,” Claitor said.

“But it is still going to be a fight when we get there as far as the give and take that is necessary to recognize that,” he said.

Claitor has twice voted “no” on this year’s public school spending plan — the lone dissenter in the Senate — because of concerns about how fast state education leaders are addressing the issue.

McReynolds said she has talked to White and Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, about finding ways to aid special education students statewide on the basis of need.

“As soon as the session is over and everybody gets back from their vacations, we will be meeting together to come up with a solution to bring to the Legislature next year,” she said.

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