Special education settlement moves forward for New Orleans schools

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News from Louisiana

A federal judge gave preliminary approval January 8 on a comprehensive settlement to overhaul special education services in New Orleans’ network of charter and district schools.

“The agreement puts in place a plan to ensure that all public schools in New Orleans uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, Louisiana Education Department and Orleans Parish School Board said in a joint statement on December 19, when the settlement was first announced. “The agreement includes training and technical assistance for New Orleans schools, ongoing monitoring and additions to the charter renewal and extension process that ensure all schools are ready to serve students with disabilities.”

In recent years, charter schools have become a flashpoint for special education advocates, due to charter schools often low enrollment of students with disabilities and the perception that they exclude these students to boost their test ratings.

Nowhere is this debate more pronounced than in New Orleans, which, in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, created the nation’s largest network of charter schools.

In 2010, the SPLC sued the Louisiana Education Department and Orleans Parish School Board in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, for a range of violations of federal special education law.

At the time, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was under 50 percent and more than 90 percent of eighth graders with disabilities failed the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) exam, according to an SPLC fact sheet. In addition, more than 30 percent of students with disabilities were suspended during the 2008-09 school a year, a figure more than double than that of of students without disabilities.

The settlement requires the LDE to develop a schedule for identifying students who may be eligible for special education services, both for students enrolled in district and charter schools, and those not enrolled, detained in juvenile detention centers or housed in health care facilities.

During the application and renewal process, each charter school will be required to provide a plan “for offering the full array of related services to student with qualifying disabilities.”

Each school must also review its code of conduct and discipline policies, to ensure students are not being punished for behaviors arising from their disabilities.

A hearing will be held in February, to allow for comments from students with disabilities and their families, before it is finalized.