A special panel Wednesday voted to seek assurances that Louisiana’s overhaul of its special education system will avoid running afoul of federal law.
The committee did so after hearing a new series of complaints about the measure by some district special education officials who say that legal worries are posing still another impediment.
If state education leaders are able to get written assurances from federal officials “that would be a good first step in the right direction,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
The committee also asked the state Department of Education to send letters to all 69 school districts advising them that they can carry out the state law amid some local concerns that doing so could endanger federal aid.
Richard is a member of the Act 833 Leadership Steering Committee, which refers to the 2014 state law that is designed to make it easier for special education students to earn a traditional high school diploma.
The key change allows educators, parents and others who advise the students — they are called Individualized Education Plan teams — to chart an alternative path to graduation regardless of how the students fare on standardized tests. But the new rules have sparked months of controversy and delays on how to do that, and threats from federal officials last year that the changes may violate U.S. laws and could jeopardize Louisiana’s federal public school aid.
Federal officials said the law raises concerns because it treats students with disabilities differently, and allows them to collect a diploma even if they failed to pass state assessments required for other students.
State Superintendent of Education John White has downplayed those comments, and department leaders who attended the meeting said federal officials are aware that the state measure is being rolled out.
“They know the bill is being implemented,” said Bridget Devlin, policy director for the state Department of Education.
However, Richard said moving ahead with the law may require “clear guidance” from federal officials to ease worries of local educators.
Whether any such federal answers will be coming anytime soon is unclear.
The new IEPs were supposed to be in place for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
State officials essentially delayed that requirement until January amid complaints that it was unrealistic for 75,000 individual teams to do so, just weeks after the new rules became law.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is supposed to consider a contract next week aimed at launching training for educators and others in charge of revamping the student’s graduation path.
Critics on the task force said that, unless the training begins quickly, local districts will be hard pressed to have the new rules in effect for the 2015-16 school year, which would be one year after the original target date.
“It is probably going to take another legislative session,” Richard said, a reference to solving problems in the law.
Others have said previously that the rollout for such a sweeping law was unrealistic.
“This is a massive bill,” said Rebecca Hanberry, a Bossier Parish educator and member of the task force. “You don’t do some of this stuff overnight.”
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