Public education in post-Katrina New Orleans held the promise of providing superior educational opportunities to New Orleans’ children. Unfortunately, that promise is not equally available to all students. Despite the fact that federal law requires publicly funded schools to educate students who may have special needs, many New Orleans schools are closing their doors to these students. The results are perverse: Students with the greatest needs are denied the rich educational opportunities that school reform was intended to provide.
The federal law regarding educating students with disabilities
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., requires that the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) ensure that every student with disabilities who attends a public school receives a free and appropriate education. This means that LDE must ensure that New Orleans public students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly-operated schools.
The law requires that LDE ensure that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan, and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. Students with disabilities also have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education. Federal law also protects students with disabilities from being punished and removed from school for manifestations of their disabilities.
Systemic violations of federal law harms New Orleans students with disabilities
State generated data proves that LDE has systemically failed to fulfill its obligations to New Orleans public school students with disabilities:
• Only 6.8 percent of Recovery School District (RSD) students with disabilities graduate with a high school diploma. Across the state, an average of 19.4 percent of students with disabilities receive a high school diploma.
• 49.5 percent of RSD students with disabilities fail to finish school.
• On average, school districts throughout Louisiana have identified 12.2 percent of their students as eligible for special education services. New Orleans Public Schools have identified only 8 percent of their students as eligible for special education services. Comparable school districts throughout the country identify almost twice as many students with disabilities.
• The majority of students with disabilities have the potential to succeed at their grade level. But during the 2007-08 school year, 94.6 percent of all eighth grade RSD students with disabilities failed the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) test. For the same year, 78.37 percent of all eighth grade charter school students with disabilities failed the LEAP.
• During the 2008-09 school year, the RSD suspended 26.8 percent of all students with disabilities - a rate that is 63 percent higher than the statewide average. Sadly, many of the charter schools in New Orleans had much higher rates, posting some of the highest discipline rates for students with disabilities in the state. Some charter school suspended children with disabilities at rates that are 100 percent higher than the state average.
• Children with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in many New Orleans charter schools - averaging 7.8 percent of total enrollment. In the RSD, students with disabilities comprise about 12.6 of the student body.