A sweeping overhaul of Louisiana’s special education policies has sparked worries about parent lawsuits, rare action by the state Department of Education and threats of major cuts in federal aid.
It also is taking place in the first full year of Common Core, which has triggered its own set of anxieties among students and teachers after four years of planning and controversy.
The measure, Act 833, is aimed at making it easier for some special education students to earn a traditional high school diploma in a state with one of the lowest such rates — around 30 percent — in the nation.
But a law called monumental that won final approval without a dissenting vote in the Legislature is experiencing a bumpy rollout since it took effect on Aug. 1, especially over the sweeping new authority given to the teams of educators, parents and others who assist the students.
The state has about 83,000 students with disabilities.
Under the old rules, special education children faced the same standardized exams as others, which critics called a huge impediment to earning a regular high school diploma.
Under the change, the teams that develop a student’s individualized education program, or IEP, will have new authority to craft alternate paths to graduation, regardless of how they fare on the standardized exams.
But exactly how to do that is causing anxiety and confusion among special education leaders, said Laureen Mayfield, president of the Louisiana Association for Special Education Administrators.
“The directors are trying to operate out of an abundance of caution since it is a boat that is being built as it leaves the dock,” Mayfield said, a reference to the rapid, controversial timeline for implementation of the overhaul.
Mayfield, a special education leader in Bienville Parish, said special education officials have even discussed asking for a legal opinion before hammering out the new IEPs.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is still crafting rules and possible assessment methods that go with the law.
“It is that fear that we don’t know what the rules are, but if we violate one of them, it is going to have a negative effect on the student’s ability to graduate,” she said.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said if local IEP teams provide students with an alternate path to graduation that is later nixed, “then you have major liability issues.
“There has been a great deal of frustration expressed by many of the superintendents and the special education directors because in a large district, that would literally be thousands of IEPs,” Richard said.
The law says the new IEPs were supposed to be completed within 30 days after the start of school, which even some supporters now say was unrealistic.
Complaints about that deadline were so heavy that state Superintendent of Education John White took the unusual step of essentially extending it until January.
“While the department cannot change the language of a law, please know that in this initial year, the Department will not begin to collect any information regarding IEP adjustments until 30 days into the second semester of this school year, allowing both compliance with the law and time for schools and school systems to address the needs of such students,” White said in a recent weekly newsletter.
“We are happy that we can get the extended time,” said St. Helena Parish Schools Superintendent Kelli Joseph, who is on a steering committee that helps oversee implementation of the law.
“We know that the state department will not hold us accountable,” Joseph said. “That does help.”
However, one of the sponsors of the law disagreed.
“I am not entirely comfortable with that,” state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said of the extension.
“The bigger (school) systems seem to be struggling,” he said. “It is a problem of scale. I am trying to figure that out.”
Mayfield made a similar point.
“The problem is the logistical nightmare for the larger districts — the EBRs, the Caddos — that are doing thousands of IEPs,” she said.
That change and others sparked a letter to White in July that said the new rules may violate four separate federal laws and jeopardize aid to Louisiana public schools, according to officials of the U.S. Department of Education.
A spokesman for the department declined comment on the status of those concerns.
Richard said Act 833 also could endanger the state’s request for the extension of its waiver from certain federal education rules, which could put federal dollars in peril.
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