St. Mary Parish education leaders brace for special ed changes

MORGAN CITY, La. -- Funding for nearly 50 percent of St. Mary Parish’s special education students could be impacted under proposed changes to how the state supports special education students.

State Superintendent of Education John White is proposing sweeping changes in special education, including its funding, in part because only 29 percent of the students are graduating from high school.

The state has roughly 82,000 special education students, which is about 12 percent of the public school population.

St. Mary Parish has 1,844 special education students, which includes all students enrolled in gifted and talented courses.

About $313 million per year is spent statewide to aid children with a wide range of disabilities, including speech or language impediments, various mental disabilities, hearing issues, deafness or visual problems and autism.

White said the key problem is the state spends the same amount of money for all special education students regardless of specific disabilities, and that there is insufficient oversight of how students are educated and the results. Special education spending is 150 percent of the amount spent for each regular education student and is paid through the Minimum Foundation Program.

“The money is the same for every child,” he said.

Under the proposed overhaul, funding would be based on whether a student is placed in one of three categories, which could range from those with speech or language impairments to those with autism.

St. Mary Parish Superintendent Donald Aguillard said the lowest funding level in the new weighted model would be for students receiving speech and language services and for those in the gifted and talented programs.

In St. Mary Parish, that amounts to 326 students in speech and language, or 18 percent of all special education students; 377 in gifted or 20 percent; and 191 in talented, 10 percent.

White said such an approach would recognize that different disabilities require different levels of state aid.

The plan also would base funding on how the child is educated and on how special education students fare in the classroom, including whether they meet or exceed annual state academic improvement targets.

White said that the overhaul, which he said would be phased in over three years beginning with the 2013-14 school year, would not have any dramatic impact on overall funding levels.

School Board Member Roland Verret of Amelia had a dramatically different take on the changes, calling it yet another unfunded mandate from the state.

“It’s going to devastate special services,” he said. “Demand will still be there, costs will be higher and funds will be lower.”

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