If done correctly, proposed changes in funding for special education students by Louisiana’s Department of Education promise to improve the state’s dismal standing, where only half of the national average of such students earn a high school diploma.
Only two states have a worse rate than does Louisiana, at 29 percent. Currently, funding apportions 150 percent of the regular amount for a child classified as having a disability. State Superintendant John White proposes making it a sliding scale per child, dependent equally upon severity of disability, setting for education, and student progress.
Really disappointing about the current graduation trend is that Louisiana actually has a lower proportion of its students in some kind of special education track. While the national average (for 2009-10) is 13.2 percent, in Louisiana (for 2010-11) it is 11.8 percent. While nationally the highest single category, which involves the least intensive supports, is specific learning disabilities at 4.9 percent, in Louisiana it’s only 3.4 percent. Given that means the proportions of more severely disabled students are about equal national to state, that can explain some of why the Louisiana rate is half the national rate (because a higher proportion of Louisiana students need more intensive supports), but surely not entirely.
To date, while schools get the extra 50 percent per student, there’s no exact mechanism that forces them to spend it in a way that matches resources to need. If White’s proposal allocates on that basis – say 110 percent to an SLD, 140 percent to speech or language impairment, 170 percent to orthopedic impairment, 180 percent to multiply disabled, — that would encourage schools to target better resources to need, assuming that imprecise targeting is what is holding back the graduation rate. It means that some schools might have been getting overcompensated for having disproportionately among their special education students those with SLDs and emotional disturbances, while other schools that have a disproportionate group of severely disabled may not have been getting enough, now will get more appropriate amounts of funding.
This scaling also may discourage schools from too willingly wish to place students into exceptionality programs. While the standards are very selective and exacting to have a student qualify under the more severe disabilities, they are much more open to interpretation with special learning disabilities. And even as the statistics do not suggest that it is a major problem, if one at all, in Louisiana, the lure of 50 percent extra dollars may encourage schools to classify borderline cases of students as ones with disabilities who really do not have one. Reduce that incentive considerably, and that would reduce the temptation.
Also a possible benefit would be providing greater choice to disabled students. Because the law allows some leeway in acceptance of students, because of particular missions they may have in the case of charter schools, as a proportion of disabled students in student populations there are disproportionately fewer enrolled in charter schools than in traditional ones, particularly with severe disabilities as these schools may face bigger fixed costs and not benefit from economies of scale in the instruction of these students that their traditional counterparts. The new scaling may act as an encouragement to charter schools to become more flexible on this issue in accepting students with more severe disabilities, as a result of greater compensation. The same logic may apply to the scholarship voucher program recently launched statewide.
In formulating the policy, it must avoid incentives to segregate disabled students. While in some cases it will be appropriate to place disabled students in a common learning environment separated from others, and that schools can go too far in inappropriately mainstreaming these students into classrooms, for many disabled students supports necessary are unobtrusive enough so that there is minimal to no disruption of classes taken with their non-disabled peers. The environmental aspect of the scoring system should be biased in favor of an inclusionary strategy where it makes sense.
As well, the student progress portion of the system should be designed with that goal in mind. Grade progress and eventual graduation should be facilitated by correct targeting and by inclusive learning environments. This provides incentives that schools use these resources wisely in matching them to need.
Certainly the mental and/or physical challenges disabled students must face will interfere with their ability to earn a high school diploma, But surely these are not so great that fewer than one in three end up graduating; other states’ results contradict accepting that as normal. This system must improve, and the broad outlines of White’s proposal give every indication that it will help facilitate that.