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Louisiana Special Education Bill Would Segregate Students With Disabilities, Advocates Say

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Should schools expect students with a disability to know the same things as other kids their age to advance and graduate?

This decades-old question, which strikes at the heart of the civil rights movement for students who have disabilities, has provoked a debate in Louisiana that's dividing advocates.

Legislation unanimously approved by the Louisiana House now being considered by the Senate potentially would lower expectations for students with disabilities by allowing teachers and administrators to promote or graduate them without regard for state standards, according to several national advocacy groups and Louisiana's schools chief. But local politicians and the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council say the bill would put Louisiana on par with other states by providing students with disabilities a clearer path to graduation.

"I'm for Louisiana having a more flexible path to a diploma for students with disabilities that are truly leading to persistent academic struggles," John White, the state education commissioner, told The Huffington Post. "What I am not for is a bill saying students with disabilities can't achieve traditional standards and even more than that, that we as adults shouldn't be held accountable for helping them achieve traditional standards."

The bill was introduced in February by Rep. John Schroder, a Republican who represents Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. It was part of a flurry of legislation state lawmakers introduced to tap into rising popular sentiment against the state's implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Schroder's other bills would tweak the standards, but wouldn't revoke them.

Schroder's special education bill aims to make it easier for students with disabilities to graduate. It does so by placing promotion and graduation decisions for students with disabilities who fail to meet required scores on state tests entirely in the hands of the school-based teams that work on students' individualized education plans, or IEPs. IEP teams could grant diplomas to students they deem incapable of meeting state and local graduation requirements, if they meet their IEP standards. The legislation would exclude those students from state tests used to judge school performance, but would reward schools for each student who meets the IEP goals.

"It's not fine to say that our accountability of adults should be contingent on whatever we want to set that accountability at," White said. "That sets all kinds of incentives to lower the bar and over-classify kids as having special needs."

Critics say that has already happened in states given too much leeway.

"We know from history, in Louisiana and other states, that policies of segregation like this one result in over-identification of students to special education –- especially students of color," the National Center for Learning Disabilities wrote Thursday in a letter to Schroder "strongly" opposing the bill. "Although students with disabilities in Louisiana continue to experience poor academic outcomes as compared to their peers and across the country, this should not induce the state to lower academic standards for these students."

Instead, the group and others say these students need better instructional supports to help them achieve better results. Lindsay Jones, the National Center for Learning Disabilities public policy director, said in an interview that the only way for parents to make sure their kids are held to the same standards as peers would be to sue.

Also on Thursday, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates wrote Schroder to oppose the bill, saying it would place Louisiana "in direct conflict with federal law and would violate the civil rights of children with disabilities." The group said the bill "flagrantly disregards the rights of students with disabilities and disrespects their opportunity to achieve meaningful academic, social and emotional outcomes alongside their peers, through access to a regular high school diploma."

Schroder couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Shawn Fleming of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council said he worked with Schroder on the bill and supports it.

"This is how most kids in the nation graduate, kids with disabilities," Fleming said. "What I find odd is why everybody else gets to do it but Louisiana."

Fleming said letters he's seen opposing the bill contain "misinformation," such as the allegation that it lowers standards and violates federal law, because "federal law does not dictate how a kid graduates."

The bill makes sense, Fleming said, because "kids should be measured based on individual progress," and traditional academic graduation measures don't include "nonacademic crucial things" that can count as progress for students with disabilities.

"What's going on right now doesn't make any sense," Fleming said. "Kids are dropping out of school so early that we're doing a disservice by not providing as full as an education and letting them each reach their potential as we could. That's what this bill seeks to do."

But Elizabeth Marcell, who oversees special education at a chain of Louisiana charter schools called Renew, said the bill is a big step back.

"There's an assumption of good will and a failure to recognize the unintended consequences of this policy and a failure to recognize that we don't need modified outcome standards for 90 percent of students with disabilities," Marcell said. "It's saying, these poor kids who aren't able to graduate, let's give them a diploma and make them happy, but they're not meeting any standards. We should make sure there's a better array of options."

The fight in Louisiana echoes a clash in New York state, where Education Commissioner John King included in his application to extend the waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act a bid to allow up to 2 percent of the state's students with "severe disabilities ineligible for the alternate assessment" to be tested at their instructional ability -- not their chronological grade year -- up to two full grade levels below a student's current grade level. The federal government has not yet acted on King's request.

While Fleming said he expects the Louisiana bill to clear the Senate with broad support, White said he thinks the national outcry will temper support -- and create an appetite for an alternate solution. He said his office is working with politicians to create alternate assessments for students with severe disabilities without leaving standards in the hands of teachers. For example, Maryland, White said, provides project-based assessments that students can complete if they fail the state graduation test twice. Virginia has alternate courses and tests. But unlike the Schroeder proposal, White said, those states adhere to rigid standards -- "they don't just say any IEP team can make up their criteria."

Furthermore, White said, universities likely won't adjust their expectations, so students who attend college will be unable to succeed. "You're setting them up for failure," he said.

A representative from Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) office did not immediately return a request for comment on whether he supports the bill.