Diploma Requirements Could Change for Louisiana Special Ed students

State Department of Education officials in Louisiana are trying to find a way to produce better graduation rates for special education students. These attempts are leading to fierce disagreements with advocates for children with disabilities.

One official with the state department of education, Larry Alexander, said the state has plans to revamp the career education program in an attempt to better prepare students for a career and earn a diploma.  Advocates say the process in which special education students earn a diploma needs to be redone.

The issue came to light at a meeting of the Special Education Advisory panel that advises the state board of elementary and secondary education. The panel voted to support a new overhaul called Jump Start, which was created by Alexander. The panel also asked the state department of education for major changes in relation to how the state decides if students qualify for a diploma.

Some of the debate stems from controversy last year when state Superintendent of Education John White called for changes in state aid for special-education students since only 29% graduate from public high schools, which is one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Louisiana houses 83,000 special education students with ranges of disabilities like speech or language delays, hearing or vision issues, mental disabilities and autism. Alexander says Jump Start will offer students with disabilities an opportunity to get career training that aligns with their personal interest and skills.

Jump Start is touted as a way for school districts, colleges, and businesses to re-energize career and technical education and ensure that students have the technical skills needed to land top-paying jobs.

Shawn Fleming, deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, says the state needs to work with the student’s IEP (Individual Education Program) team to decide whether a special education student qualifies for a diploma.

According to Will Sentell with the Advocate, some critics believe that Louisiana’s special education graduation rate is low because the state sets stricter standards that include mandatory passing of state tests. Under Fleming’s plan, the IEP team would set goals for the students and determine whether or not the student moves on to the next grade and whether their state assessment met their expectations.

Alexander’s proposal is supported by Fleming’s group, Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators, Families Helping Families of Greater Baton Rouge, Inc., and others.

Panel member Rana Ottalah criticized the idea, saying that lowering the standards would be the same as handing out a special education diploma. Another member, Susan Vaughn, director of Special Education for Ascension Parish Schools, supports the proposal and countered Ottalah’s arguments, saying that “under existing rules, students with disabilities are ‘prisoners’ of the state’s accountability system.”

A vote should take place later next month.