A Legislature-ordered overhaul of Louisiana’s special education system is sparking questions, concerns and angst among superintendents.
“We are proceeding cautiously,” said John Watson, superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system. “It is a big undertaking.”
Other school district chiefs made similar comments about the sweeping new law, which won approval earlier this year, took effect on Aug. 1 and was supposed to start being implemented in schools a few weeks later.
“We are trying to do it on the fly,” said Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish School District. “We just need a little bit more time.”
The changes are aimed at giving some special education students new options in obtaining a traditional high school diploma.
Critics contend that, under the previous rules, many special education students found it almost impossible to meet promotion and graduation requirements because they had to pass the same standardized tests as their peers.
Under the new law, a special education student’s advisory team will have the authority to craft an alternate path to graduation, including new goals, an intensive instructional program and a course of study that prepares them for college, more training or a job.
“It is a big deal,” said Bridget Bergeron, supervisor of special instruction for the St. Martin Parish school system.
“It is opening doors for kids with special needs that were not open to them before,” Bergeron said. “Without a diploma our kids were unemployable.”
State Superintendent of Education John White, whose agency has been criticized, said the law affects dozens of state policies and will take time to implement.
“Every student that needs to be helped is going to get the help they need on the schedule we are on,” White said.
The state has nearly 83,000 special education students.
About 8,000 high school students per year might be affected by the new rules.
However, some superintendents freely admit that they were unable to meet the first major deadline of the law — new minimum assessments for students who plan to take advantage of the changes within 30 days after the start of school.
The job requires rewriting potentially thousands of Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
Watson, like many others, said his district has not finished that task, and he noted that officials of the state Department of Education are giving local districts until January to finish the task.
Liz Gary, who lives in Mandeville and is the mother of a child with a disability, said faster action is needed.
“It needs to be rolled out quicker than it is being rolled out,” Gary said of the law.
She said all the parties involved knew the law took effect Aug. 1 and that IEPs had to be done within 30 days of the start of school.
“The law is the law,” Gary said.
The state Department of Education, which has been criticized by Gary and others for failing to provide enough guidance to local school districts, announced last week that a series of webinars will be held starting Monday and Tuesday to offer assistance.
White said his agency started spelling out implementation plans on June 6 and is working with multiple advocacy groups.
“It seems like some people want every voice to be heard and things to happen immediately, but sometimes it takes time to hear all the voices and make the appropriate policy,” he said.
Patrice Pujol, superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system, said her district has finished many of the required IEPs.
“The implementation timeline is quick,” Pujol noted.
Other laws that made major changes in education rules were phased in over months or years, according to the state Department of Education.
A 2012 statute that is overhauling Louisiana’s early childhood education system takes full effect three years later.
Another 2012 law that revamped teacher salary schedules took effect for the 2013-14 school year.
A 2010 measure that made major changes in how public school teachers are evaluated took effect with the 2012-13 school year, department figures show.
The special education changes were sponsored by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.
Claitor said earlier that, during debate on the measure, department officials never said they had concerns about the timetable.
Central School District Superintendent Michael Faulk said the new rules represent a major change.
“I know my staff has talked to me about the extra work, the time involved, the fact that because there is a timeline they have to redirect energies and effort,” he said. “And you know right now we aren’t really getting any guidance.”
Scott Devillier, superintendent of public schools in Zachary, said one key concern is to ensure consistency in how students with disabilities are evaluated using different academic paths.
“And, of course, when you have to rewrite all the IEPs, that is a load in itself,” Devillier said.