H.B. 1015 :: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

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A bill working its way through the Louisiana state legislature (H.B. 1015) proposes significant changes to the manner in which the state’s 70,000 + students with disabilities will be educated.

Designed to address the exceedingly low rate that students with disabilities earn a regular high school diploma (see table below), H.B. 1015 will allow IEP teams to substitute IEP goals for any and all of the state’s graduation requirements that apply to all other students. The same applies to grade promotion.

The proposal has lots of support – from parents, from legislators, and from the state’s Developmental Disabilities Council, which is working hard for its passage. There is alot of misinformation associated with the rationale for this bill – primarily the inaccurate claim that 28 states leave graduation requirements for students with disabilities up to the IEP team. While many states allow IEP teams some level of involvement in matters related to how a student will exit school, most are restricted by state and local policies. Few are as sweeping as the policy proposed by H.B. 1015.

There’s a couple of things fundamentally wrong with the provisions in H.B. 1015, particularly those pertaining to graduation. The “alternate pathway” will lead to students with disabilities receiving a regular high school diploma with no guarantee that the document represents attainment of skills and knowledge needed for life beyond high school. Unfortunately, inappropriate use of IEP goals – and the IEP team that is charged with formulating the goals – is rampant. In fact, it found its way into discussions of federal education policy a few years back, as we detailed here. The consequences are depicted in the cartoon below, from the works of Michael Giangreco:

Reprinted with permission: Giangreco, M.F. (1998). Ants in his pants: Absurdities and realities of special education. Minnetonka, MN: Peytral Publications www.peytral.com

The well-meaning folks in Louisiana need to go back to the drawing board for the following reasons:

  • the sweeping authority given the IEP team in H.B. 1015 is almost certain to result in a violation of the rights of students with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Specially, their right to comparable benefits as those that confer to their non-disabled peers;
  • special education services are terminated when a student is awarded a regular diploma, thus, students in great need of services through age 21 (as allowed by state law) may be shortchanged;
  • the complete lack of involvement and oversight by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Department of Education provides no checks and balances for the application of the “alternate pathway,” thus, a student who receives 30 minutes of speech therapy per week for articulation problems could be excused from graduation requirements just as easily as a student with significant cognitive disabilities;
  • students, parents, institutions of higher education and employers will be confronted with a regular diploma that means little if anything to life beyond school – and means something different for every student.

The poor academic performance of students with disabilities in Louisiana shouldn’t be used as a rationale for moving away from state standards, assessment results, and graduation requirements. While H.B. 1015, if implemented, might produce a bump in graduation rates, it will do little to improve academic performance. In fact, states with the highest graduation rates for students with disabilities have very tough and tight policies – states like Massachusetts and Maryland.

As articulated by Jeff Spitzer-Resnick in his recent blog post, its time to Stop Paternalizing Children with Disabilities.

As first appeared in Education Week January 28, 2014. Reprinted with permission from Editorial Projects in Education.

The writer is director of The Advocacy Institute and author of Diplomas at Risk: A Critical Look at the Graduation Rate of Students with Learning Disabilities, a 2013 report published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The sponsor of H.B. 1015 misrepresented the purpose and recommendations of this report in his opening statement to the House Education Committee on April 29, 2014. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has sent this letter to the members of the Louisiana House and Senate.

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