Seven months after the Legislature overhauled the way special education students can earn a traditional high school diploma in Louisiana, state leaders are still grappling with how to make it a reality.
The law was touted as a way to help some of the state’s 83,000 students with disabilities and to start trimming Louisiana’s dismal graduation rate for those children, many of whom never get a high school diploma.
But the 2014 law has instead triggered problems at almost every turn, angered state and local educators and raised questions about just when parents can expect the kind of education relief that the overhaul was supposed to deliver.
It has sparked two letters from federal officials questioning its legality, persistent worries from local educators on how it should be implemented and months of finger-pointing on why the rollout has been so rocky.
The changes have ignited controversy in a legislative committee, predictions of lawsuits from angry parents and a $251,000 state contract to train parents and educators on how the revised rules work.
Last week the state Department of Education sent out new guidance for local officials on how they can make the changes work without running the risk of federal sanctions.
“The intent is to put to rest all of these policy discussions,” said state Superintendent of Education John White.
A webinar, one in a series, was held Friday to provide more assistance.
Yet even with the latest batch of information, confusion remains.
“I don’t think it has helped,” said Lauren Mayfield, president of the Louisiana Association for Special Education Administrators and a member of a task force overseeing the changes.
“The document that came out has increased confusion,” said Mayfield, who is a special education leader in Bienville Parish.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said local boards remain wary amid threats by federal officials.
Richard said that, unless state officials can get a pledge from federal officials that the 2014 measure is permissible, the state Department of Education should act to ensure that local school districts are protected if they lose federal funds.
Under the old rules, special education students took the same standardized exams as their rank-and-file peers, and they often failed to achieve the scores needed for a regular high school diploma.
The key change in the law allows educators and parents who advise the children — called Individualized Education Program teams, or IEPs — to hammer out new academic paths for those students, regardless of how they fare on traditional exams.
Officials of the U.S. Department of Education said in a letter dated Jan. 12 that they are concerned the new rules will illegally allow IEP teams to set lower standards for the promotion and graduation of students with disabilities.
White told a meeting of local superintendents on Thursday that, as long as students affected by the law take the same coursework as others, IEP teams can decide whether they have met their standards for success and eventually for a diploma.
Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system, said teachers have long offered “multiple measures of assessment” on whether students master classroom material.
“We did that for students who struggled,” Voitier said. “It is now in the law.”
The ranks of special education students include those with a wide range of issues, including speech or language impairment, developmental delays, emotional disturbances and autism.
Those affected by the law, called Act 833, are an estimated 8,000 students per year who failed to meet state assessment benchmarks in two of the most recent years, or who failed to meet minimum standards on two tries at the same end-of-course exam.
Under the law, IEP teams are supposed to strike a balance. They are to hammer out methods on how students can be assessed that give them a better chance of earning a high school diploma. But they cannot lower the bar so far that it would throw diploma credits into question later, or trigger federal intervention.
The IEP teams craft the new standards, but teachers have the final say in whether the course credit is awarded.
Voitier said teachers and IEP teams have to work closely.
“The general educators have to know these kids are entitled to special accommodations,” she said.
Mayfield said her group met earlier this month, but after hearing from state officials, more special education officials were confused on how to implement the law than before the meeting.
“For Louisiana, it is a paradigm shift,” she said.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/