Aren’t We All Special?

IMG_3749Whether you are an educator, a parent, or a community member, most folks have heard of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), but probably don’t know what they are, or what they do. In summary, they are essentially special education laws. IDEA is a stand alone special education law, and NCLB is a part of the much larger Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that addresses impoverished students and provides choice opportunities for parents in the form of charter schools and vouchers. To you and us, it is basically our tax money going to Washington, and then our State jumping through hoops to get it back, but we’ll save that for another story.

The education department of each state is required to submit to the federal government a plan on how it intends to distribute the money it receives, use it to fund programs, and how it will hold districts, schools and teachers accountable for providing equal access to education for all students, including the poor and the disabled. NCLB is, in fact, the cornerstone for the Common Core State Standards, now referred to as College and Career Readiness Standards, that education reformers are using to destroy public education. If you don’t already know, We’re going to tell you. Our former governor was an ed reformer. The current superintendent of education is an ed reformer. The previous, and current BESE board, holds an ed reform majority. The ed reform agenda has its claws deep in the Louisiana school system, and our children are paying dearly for it.

During Sunday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, members questioned Supt. John White in regards to the departmental cuts in House Bill 122, White said something interesting. He stated that the proposed $52 million cut would essentially eliminate the department of education, leaving him unable to fund numerous programs and only able to retain a handful of employees. Then, in response to another question, he stated that with the exception of himself and Deputy Supt., Beth Scioneaux, most of the staff at LDOE is partially/mostly funded with federal funds. Why is that? (Click here for a complete list of LDOE employees and salaries)

A number of years ago, White took it upon himself to dismantle the special education department of LDOE. This is the department that developed policy, monitored compliance and advised districts on matters related to IDEA and NCLB. The department was primarily funded by the federal dollars provided through these programs. He then spread the money out among the rest of the LDOE staff and required the staff to fill out timecards to indicate how much time they spent on special education matters. His justification? Well, all teachers in a school are responsible for servicing and educating special needs students, so why shouldn’t the department of education be structured the same way? Yeah…right! You can read more about this in this article titled SPEDgate written by former LDOE employee, Jason France.

Now that you know the backstory, let us explain how these things are connected. About two weeks ago, we were provided with copies of two letters addressed to Supt. John White. The first letter was from the U.S. Department of Education, dated December 21, 2015, essentially placed Louisiana on “high-risk” notice of Title 1 funds for being out of compliance with IDEA/NCLB. The reason being, in his November 2015 application to renew Louisiana’s NCLB Waiver, White stated that he had not developed and administered an alternative state assessment, for special populations, aligned with the academic standards during the 14-15 school year and would not in the 15-16 school year because they are transition years and the standards are under review. This, despite the fact that he was quite capable of producing a regular assessment. Actually, two assessments.

The second letter, dated February 19, 2016, was from the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators (LASEA) The LASEA had obtained a copy of the first letter, and it prompted them to take a close look at LDOE’s finances. What they noted was a bit disturbing. It seems that over the last few years, not only had White received money designated to developing the alternate assessments that weren’t developed, the total amount of federal dollars received, increased yearly.

Now, if you took the time to follow the link and read Jason France’s article, you can probably draw the same conclusion that we, and the LASEA, have drawn. Every federal dollar that an LDOE staff member records and receives for “special education” work supplants a dollar that would have originally come from the general fund. Now, none of us at BTA are CPAs, but it appears that there is a whole lot of money floating around that is unaccounted for; probably in the form of bogus grants called “Believe and…whatever ed reform phrase works,” or making its way down to fund failing charter schools and the RSD.

Meanwhile, special education departments all over the state, and the students they serve, are suffering because they don’t have the resources they need. They are dealing with bogus career programs, like JumpStart, that water down the high school diploma in an effort to increase graduation rates and create a workforce for our local industries.

We have been told that White, or his representatives, have communicated to some superintendents that there will be no opt-outs, this year, and every student present on testing day gets a test placed in front of them. One could assume that this would do wonders for proving to the feds that he doesn’t need an alternate assessment because Louisiana students are doing just fine on their PARCC-like assessment. After all, he controls the overall outcome of the test scores. Come to think of it, his creative funding approach and choice of assessment sorta make the case that ALL students are “special.”

We believe it is high time for the LDOE to be thoroughly audited.