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Spec. Ed. Bill Advances in Louisiana, With Backing of State Schools Chief

A Louisiana bill that would grant school-based teams broad powers to create graduation and grade-promotion standards for certain students with disabilities is set to go before the state Senate Wednesday, after the Senate's education committee last week unanimously approved a scaled-back version of the measure. 

Among the supporters of the bill is state education Superintendent John White. He said in an interview after the May 22 committee vote that the amended bill had been changed from "one that would have recused adults from their responsibility to serve children with disabilities, to a way to serve children who need an alternate assessment program." The team that creates a student's individualized education program, or IEP team, will be the entity responsible for making these decisions. 

The bill sailed through the  House of Representatives on May 7 with a vote of 99-0.

Several amendments adopted after the Senate committee hearing would place some restrictions on which students with disabilities would be eligible for this new flexibility. The amendments have not yet been compiled into the version of the bill that is online, but among the changes:

  • The bill's language has been changed to allow "twice-exceptional" students—those who are gifted and who also have a disability—to be eligible for this flexibility. An early version of the bill excluded gifted students. 
  • The alternative pathway for grade promotion would be available to students who have not passed state-mandated tests in the previous year. For this flexibility to apply to graduation, the student must have failed to meet standards for any two of the three most recent school years, or must have failed the two most recent administrations of any state-established tests required for graduation. Currently, Louisiana requires students to pass three end-of-course tests in Algebra I or Geometry, English 2 or English 3, and Biology or U.S. History. 
  • The bill no longer makes any change to how the performance of students with disabilities would be calculated in school-performance scores. The bill originally offered a way for schools to remove those test scores from performance results, and some supporters said that kind of exemption was needed as an incentive for high-performing schools to enroll students with disabilities. 
  • The state board of education would be required to offer guidance to IEP teams, including a list of other assessments and minimum scores that could be used instead of the regular state tests, but the team would not be required to follow that guidance.
  • Diplomas granted to students under this flexibility would be counted the same as diplomas issued to any other student, for the purposes of calculating state school-performance scores.

The changes appeared to mollify some of the opponents that of the bill who gathered to speak at the Senate committee, though before the bill came up for a vote, a committee leader told the audience that the bill, with the changes, was going to pass. 

" I think that the bill as amended is much better than the bill that came before you," said Robert Pasternack, a former assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services. "But much needs to be said about building the capacity of IEP teams to make  the appropriate decisions."

Sheldon Horowitz, the director of LD resources for the New York-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, an organization that was an early opponent of the Louisiana measure, said "the work [on the bill] has really been astoundingly positive, and most if not all of the work really does answer the concerns that we have." He added that the bill as amended might not provide enough power to a parent who disagrees with an IEP team decision, however.

White said after the Senate action that the vast majority of students with disabilities can achieve at the highest level, but a small number, after multiple years of academic struggle, "truly deserve an alternate means of demonstrating proficiency."

One question, however, is how this change will be perceived by the U.S. Department of Education, which has said that an early version of the bill appeared to violate both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The department has not yet weighed on the newest version of the bill, with the more restrictive amendments. 

" I would say the legislature, governor and state board of Louisiana are going to do what's best for Louisiana," White said. 

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