Mired in controversy for months, a task force Thursday voted to form yet another panel to try to resolve problems plaguing a state law aimed at making it easier for students with disabilities to get a high school diploma.
The decision followed nearly four hours of often pointed exchanges on who bears the blame for troubles surrounding a law that took effect in August.
Some backers of the overhaul contend the state Department of Education has fallen short on providing local educators with crucial guidance.
But Jamie Wong, director of special education policy for the department, said her agency has supplied districts with a wide array of information on a “massive” law and that more is coming next week.
“This just went in to effect in August,” Wong said of the new rules. “We have tried to be very clear and very purposeful.”
The state has about 80,000 special education students and one of the nation’s lowest high school graduation rates for students with disabilities.
The task force of special education officials, advocacy groups and parents was set up to help with the rollout of the measure, Act 833.
But the issue has been plagued by controversy from the outset, and federal officials have twice raised concerns on whether the law runs afoul of federal rules.
The first wave of changes for students was supposed to be in place at the start of the school year.
However, state officials said that deadline was never realistic and essentially pushed it back to January.
The overhaul allows teachers and parents who advise the students — called Individualized Education Program teams, or IEPs — to spell out alternative paths to a high school diploma, regardless of how a student fares on standardized tests that rank-and-file students have to pass.
How to do that is in dispute.
Some educators say they are fearful of lawsuits or state and federal sanctions if they provide advice to special education students that is later questioned.
Cheryl Braud, director of special education for the Tangipahoa Parish School District, said IEP teams “get very nervous” writing new academic paths.
Braud said educators would feel better with written guidance from the state and also approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Plans for the latest panel include finding answers to whether and how local officials can carry out the changes without running afoul of federal regulations.
The committee is supposed to include some members of BESE, department officials, leaders of the task force, attorneys and parents.
Jeanne Ebey, director of special education for the Livingston Parish school system, echoed the view of other local officials at the meeting who said they are struggling to proceed.
“We are in a muddy, muddy place right now, and we have to get out,” Ebey said.
Even sponsors of the law disagree on where things stand.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said information provided by the state Department of Education and federal officials is enough for local officials to move ahead. “To me, as one of the authors, I have all the comfort I need,” Claitor said.
But state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington and House sponsor of the law, said a new study group is needed to resolve crucial issues.
“We have to get to the bottom of this,” Schroder said.
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