A new state law that overhauled Louisiana’s special education system triggered more arguments Wednesday, including finger pointing on whether state or local officials are to blame for the biggest parental complaints.
State Superintendent of Education John White said that few grasped the implications of the measure earlier this year when it won lopsided approval in the Legislature.
“This is the most complicated area of education policy,” White told a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees.
“We have to get it done but it is not going to happen overnight,” he said.
But state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said he has heard complaints from numerous people “who don’t feel confident with where we are going.”
Donahue quizzed White on exactly what steps state officials have taken to implement the measure.
He said a list of local school districts not carrying out the measure should be turned over to state lawmakers. “And we will put in the newspaper,” Donahue added.
The arguments erupted during a joint meeting of the education panels, which is required at least once a year.
While the committee discussed teacher evaluations, student data privacy and pre-K changes, complaints about the special education law dominated.
The measure, which is known in education circles as Act 833, is designed in part to improve Louisiana’s graduation rate for special education students, which at near 30 percent is among the lowest in the nation.
Under the previous rules, students with disabilities took the same standardized exams as other students, which critics said hampered their ability to earn a diploma.
Under the new law, the teams of parents and educators who draw up a student’s individualized education plan, or IEP, have the authority to chart an alternative path to graduation regardless of how they fare on standardized tests.
Exactly how to do that is in dispute.
The new IEPs were supposed to be completed within 30 days after the start of school, which some lawmakers now say privately was unrealistic.
The state extended that deadline to January, which then caused parents and others to complain that students still are awaiting guidance with nearly half the school year finished.
White said the law essentially turned IEP oversight from one source — the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — to 75,000 individual teams now in charge of crafting their own plans.
“We are training them,” he said. “Are they all at the place they ought to be? No. It will take time.”
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, Senate sponsor of the law, said “somehow the ball is being dropped” by state or local educators “or all of us.”
“If we are not getting the information to the parents, we are just spinning our wheels,” Claitor said.
State officials said that, of the state’s 75,000 students with IEPs, about 14,000 might be eligible for the new pathway to graduation.
Donahue told White that the state’s first priority should be identifying those 14,000 students.
White countered that the law requires the IEP teams to do that, and that it says nothing about his agency or BESE penalizing local districts.
State Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly, a former principal, said the IEP teams need assistance.
“I believe we need a lot more training to make the process go easier,” Reynolds said.
The law also has sparked concerns of parental lawsuits and threats of major cuts in federal aid.
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