The rollout of a new state law that overhauls Louisiana’s special education system is causing an uproar, including criticism that students will suffer because educators are not getting enough help from state officials.

“As a superintendent, it is another big thing we have to deal with, with no guidance from the state,” said Kelli Joseph, St. Helena Parish schools superintendent.

Joseph made her comments during an often heated initial meeting of a 20-member committee that is supposed to help oversee implementation of a sweeping measure to make it easier for some special education students to earn a high school diploma.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, chairman of the panel and House sponsor of the law, repeatedly said he was dumfounded that the issue is beset by so many questions and concerns.

“I am shocked at what I am hearing,” Schroder said at one point during a more than three-hour gathering, and he sent a letter of complaint to state Superintendent of Education John White the next day.

Leaders of the state Department of Education said they have worked since June 6 to implement the law, including webinars and meetings with local school officials and special education directors, and that more are planned.

“We are committed to giving them lots of support,” said Erin Bendily, assistant superintendent for policy and governmental affairs.

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

Under the previous law, most high school students with disabilities took the same standardized tests as their peers.

Critics said that created huge barriers to graduation and helped make Louisiana one of the lowest-ranked states in the nation in the percentage of special education students who earn traditional high school diplomas — 29 percent.

Under the new state law, a special education student’s advisory team is authorized to hammer out an alternative path to graduation, regardless of how the student fares on standardized exams.

The Individualized Education Program advisers — known as an IEP team — are supposed to identify rigorous goals for the student and offer diagnostic information, monitoring, intensive instructional program and innovative methods, including flexible scheduling.

No one doubts that the overhaul is historic.

White has called the changes monumental.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system and president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the new law poses a huge challenge for local school districts.

In addition, the sweeping new rules — Act 833 — are supposed to be operating in school systems barely three months after the law was passed.

But special education officials, school principals and superintendents on the committee complained that they badly need guidance from the state Department of Education.

They said they especially need written criteria that IEP teams can use to craft new, minimum assessments for students who plan to use the alternative paths to graduation.

Joseph and others noted that, under the new law, IEP teams are supposed to devise those standards within 30 days of the start of the school year.

Public schools in the St. Helena school system began July 31.

“When it comes down to training, what is the state department going to do?” she asked. “We need to do a better job of rolling it out.”

Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council and a backer of the law, said roughly 20 special education directors he questioned recently said they were having problems with implementation.

Whether that means the new assessments cannot be used in districts that failed to meet the 30-day rule is unclear.

“I think the answer to that is unknown,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, Senate sponsor of the law.

Laureen Mayfield, president of the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators Inc. and a committee member, said in a Sept. 4 email to White that many districts statewide are not implementing the law because of lack of guidance from the Department of Education.

“Our primary concern at this point in time is that students are being denied access to the alternate pathway to a diploma within the first 30 days of school because of inaction due to confusion and an abundance of caution,” Mayfield wrote.

“In each case in which a district and/or school have waited for additional guidance from the department, and the 30-day window has closed, those students have lost the opportunity for consideration for the alternate pathway for this school year.

“For some students, that yearlong delay could mean their giving up and dropping out of school, as has so often happened in the past.”

Bendily said that while the department does not have the power to extend the 30-day deadline, it is telling school systems it will not be collecting information from IEP teams until January.

“We think that will give everyone an opportunity to allow IEP team meetings, and we know that everyone wants to do this the right way,” Bendily said.

Schroder said in his letter to White that virtually every member of the panel complained on Sept. 3 about a lack of assistance from his agency.

“As a result, the leaders of most local school systems have put off implementing and complying with the law pending further guidance from the department,” he wrote. “I hope that you agree that this is completely unacceptable.”

Schroder even left the committee meeting to complain to Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“I consider this to be one of the biggest issues I have faced as a legislator,” Schroder told the committee moments later. “We have to fix this.”

Roemer said later, “The issue has to be straightened out. Period. There is no question about that.

“It is a controversial issue but regardless our job is to make sure that this is properly implemented,” he said.

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