Special education law sparks new controversy

While a new state law may pave the way for more special education students to earn high school diplomas, some of those gains will be excluded when schools are rated by the state, officials said Wednesday.

The issue surfaced on Tuesday and Wednesday as the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education began implementing a controversial new law that gives special education students an alternative pathway to traditional high school diplomas.

The change stems in part from the fact that just 29 percent of students with disabilities in Louisiana collected a traditional degree, according to 2013 figures.

Under the change, a special education student’s advisory team could hammer out an alternative route to graduation, regardless of how they fare on traditional exams.

However, state Superintendent of Education John White told BESE that, under federal rules, some of those students who earn diplomas will not earn points for their schools under the state’s accountability system.

Federal rules require students to be fully aligned with traditional academic standards for diploma purposes.

Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who do not earn all the required Carnegie units will not count, officials said.

BESE on Wednesday approved rules changes to start implementing the law.

However, the panel also directed the state Department of Education to come up with ways for those students who earn diplomas to benefit their schools and districts, which White backed.

Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, said keeping those special education graduates out of the accountability system would perpetuate a setup that already encourages schools to be selective.

“Our current educational system is a competitive-based structure,” Fleming said in an interview after the meeting.

“So schools that serve students that don’t count lose points or don’t get points perhaps,” he said. “There is no value placed on what students with the most significant needs are receiving.”

The state has about 74,000 special education students.

How many could benefit under the new rules is unclear.

However, less than 1,000 may be excluded for accountability purposes even if they graduate.

While the law won lopsided approval earlier this year in the Legislature, it continues to spark controversy in the special education community.

Liz Gary, who lives in St. Tammany Parish, praised the law and said it stems from the state’s low graduation rate for students with disabilities.

“It is clear our policies, not individuals, that were causing the problem,” she said.

Rebecca Ellis, who also lives in St. Tammany Parish, told BESE that the overhaul showed politicians in the Legislature were listening, which she said they have not done in the past.

But Rana Ottallah, of Metairie, referred to comments by federal officials that the state law may violate U. S. laws and could jeopardize Louisiana’s public school aid.

Ottallah said $292 million in federal aid could be at risk.

The advisory panels are called IEP teams because they come up with Individualized Education Programs for students.

They are supposed to assemble alternative “rigorous” routes to graduation, devise instructional programs and offer novel ways of teaching.

Ottallah said parents need assistance in deciding whether their child should pursue the new route.

“This is too much hardship on parents,” she said. “It is too much power for the IEP team.”

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