Special ed revamp sparks debate

Groups pan bill allowing alternate path to graduation

Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed a bill that backers say will offer special education students a vital new route to a high school diploma.

“It is a good thing that we are providing this pathway, and it is not a worthless or a symbolic diploma,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation.

The key change 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.

But two national groups have issued a report that denounces the measure.

They say the changes would give the student’s advisory team far too much authority, allow them to establish low standards for students and distort Louisiana’s graduation rate.

“When we see states doing something like this, we are concerned,” said Kathleen B. Boundy, co-director of the Boston-based Center for Law and Education, a national disabilities advocacy organization.

The measure, House Bill 1015, breezed through the Legislature, which spent much of its three-month session embroiled in arguments over Common Core. It won final House approval 88-0, and the Senate passed it 36-0. Jindal signed it without fanfare.

But behind the scenes, the measure has touched off heated arguments among those who are often allies in the tight-knit special education advocacy community.

Ashley McReynolds, who often testifies on special education issues before the Legislature and Louisiana’s top school board, praised the legislation.

“I feel like for the first time it allows some students with disabilities an opportunity to earn a high school diploma,” McReynolds said.

But Rana Ottallah, who lives in Metairie and is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter with a hearing impairment, said the new law will lower academic standards for students with disabilities and encourage schools to direct students into a less rigorous curriculum to improve the schools’ state rating.

In an email, Ottallah said the overhaul “has the potential to create more harm than good.”

Under current rules, most high school special education students grapple with the same standardized exams as their rank-and-file peers.

“And most kids with disabilities don’t score well on standardized tests, almost by definition,” said Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council.

The key part of the revamped system would give new authority to the teachers, district officials, parents and others who make up the advisory panels that put together students’ Individualized Education Programs.

If an IEP determines that a student is not required to meet state or local performance standards, the panel can:

  • Spell out alternative “rigorous” goals for the student.
  • Devise an instructional program.
  • Offer innovative methods for the student to succeed, including flexible scheduling and online instruction.
  • Identify a course of study that promotes, in most cases, workforce readiness.

Students who meet the IEP team’s new criteria would be eligible for the same career diplomas that rank-and-file students earn, which are meant to prepare students for jobs, community or technical colleges.

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

About 29 percent earn a traditional high school diploma, which has set off arguments for the past 18 months.

Backers say the law would affect what state Superintendent of Education John White said are students “that have demonstrated persistent academic struggles.”

“You are talking about a small number of kids,” White said.

Claitor said the new pathway to high school diplomas may involve 800 to 1,500 students per year.

However, critics say the new law gives IEP teams too much leeway to devise their own criteria for what a student needs to earn a diploma.

“Our concern is these kids are not being taught to the same standards, not being assessed to the same standards and they are not getting the effective interventions,” Boundy said.

The critical report was done by Boundy’s group and the Advocacy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit group that aids the disabled.

White, whose agency backed the bill, said disagreements reflect the tension between advocates of flexibility versus those who say alternate paths to graduation risk underestimating students with disabilities.

The law requires the state Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to craft rules that will guide IEP teams on whether students need a new route to graduation and how they will demonstrate their skills.

“That is really what the challenge is going to be,” White said.

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