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Minimal monitoring for special education programs highlighted in state audit

by Allison Allsop, Louisiana Illuminator
May 24, 2024

Thousands of Louisiana students with disabilities have been in special education programs that have operated with minimal oversight for more than seven years, a new state audit reveals. 

While some of the school systems in question claim to have carefully monitored the programs, parents and advocates are questioning the legitimacy of those self-assessments.

The audit, released May 16, is the second report out of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office evaluating the Louisiana Department of Education’s supervision of special education programs at K-12 schools. For the past six years, evaluations from the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs have determined Louisiana “needs assistance” with following federal education law.

The designation indicates the state falls short of compliance but doesn’t require federal government intervention.

The Individuals with Disabilities and Exceptionalities Act requires states to oversee local school districts to ensure that they meet special education requirements. To comply with this requirement, Louisiana uses what’s referred to as “risk-based monitoring.” 

The process involves ranking school systems by using school assessment scores, graduation rates, dropout rates and other factors that school systems determine. Depending on how a school system ranks, the state uses different levels of monitoring to ensure federal compliance. 

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The audit details data from the Louisiana Department of Education’s special education evaluations covering academic years 2015-16 through 2021-22. Out of 100 school systems sampled — including parish and city public school districts, charter networks and independent charter schools —  43 were deemed either low or moderate-low risk over the entire period. 

The designation means schools within the systems did not require on-site reviews or desk reviews from the state education department. For a desk review, the school must provide a targeted sample of student records the LDOE determines.  

Forty-one of the low and moderate-low risk school systems performed self-assessments, and two did not require any assessment. Out of Louisiana’s 89,681 students with disabilities, 40% are enrolled in these school systems, according to data from the audit.

On-site reviews, the most comprehensive and time-consuming of the monitoring types, weren’t performed for these school systems during the seven-year stretch. For an on-site review, schools are given 24 to 48 hours to provide sample files. LDOE will review the files on school grounds and conduct parent meetings. 

The Legislative Auditor’s analysis excluded any school system not open during the full seven-year timeframe. Orleans Parish schools were also left out of the review based on terms of a consent judgment with the state.

Parents of special needs students and their advocates told the Illuminator they are concerned that schools that perform self-assessments might not be completely truthful when evaluating their programs. 

Kathleen Cannino, a mother to a child with disabilities from St. Tammany Parish, said the process places an oversized amount of trust in school systems that could be falling short of federal standards. 

“It’s equivalent to saying, ‘Hey, did you rob that bank?’ and the (school) saying, “No, that wasn’t me.’ And then they are like ‘OK, great, thanks,’” Cannino said in an interview.

State education officials said they verify self-assessments with spot testing but did not evaluate what it entails.

Laureen Mayfield, a former special education director in Bienville Parish for 16 years, said such self-analysis isn’t always reliable. Based on when she was leader of the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators, Mayfield said special education directors could be tempted to falsify reports if they believed their jobs were on the line, although she did not provide instances when this occurred.

According to the audit, two former school system special education directors admitted to correcting issues found during self-assessments but did not report the issues to the state. 

The audit also notes budget cuts from the Legislature led to decreases in special education staff within the Louisiana Department of Education between 2012 and 2019. There were 91 LDOE staff members who worked with special education students in 2012 more than 50% of the time, compared with 28 in 2019. 

As of this year, the state has just 10 people working in its Diverse Learners division, the primary group responsible for overseeing special education in Louisiana. Only six of those 10 employees monitored the state’s 187 school systems. 

In response to the audit, LDOE has requested six additional staff members for Diverse Learners in the 2025 budget. 

Meredith Jordan, executive director of Diverse Learners, said six more employees would be sufficient to meet the department’s informal goal of reviewing each school system every six years. The goal aligns with the federal Office of Special Education Program’s recommendations. 

LDOE has since performed either desk or on-site reviews in all school systems in the audit’s sample. 

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The audit also highlighted potential misuse of federal Individuals with Disabilities and Exceptionalities Act (IDEA) funds. Money from IDEA can be used to pay personnel who work with children with disabilities, provide monitoring services and support other IDEA-required services and programs. 

The state used IDEA funds to fully or partially pay salaries for 109 employees in 2022. The audit found only 38 of the 109 had job descriptions that included work with special education programs. 

Of the 71 employees who did not have a job description with special education work, 54 still worked for LDOE when the audit was conducted. When surveyed, four of the 54 admitted to spending less time on special education than how the state “coded” them for IDEA reporting purposes.  Two others could not provide evidence that satisfied IDEA requirements for working with special education students. An additional 11 employees did not respond to the survey.

In response to these findings, Jordan said it was unfair for auditors to ask employees about work performed two years ago. The auditors said the gap occurred because LDOE took over a year to provide employee pay records. 

Mayfield, the former Bienville special education director, questioned why it would take the state so long to submit records to auditors. When she requested the same information through public records requests, she said she received it within a matter of days. 

Jordan said LDOE changed its human resources director when the audit took place, which might have contributed to the delay in providing requested information. The state also switched accounting platforms during this time, requiring officials to pull data from different systems. 

The audit listed 11 recommendations LDOE should follow to improve its oversight of special education. The department agreed with three suggestions and partially agreed with the rest.  

Auditors recommended the state increase its number of on-site reviews, to conduct either a desk or on-site reviews for all school systems within OSEP’s recommended time frame and to work with the Legislature to provide sufficient funds for monitoring purposes. The LDOE fully agreed with the recommendations. 

The department partially agreed with the following recommendations:

parent involvement for desk reviewsless time for preparing documents for desk reviewsensuring IDEA funds are used for staff working to meet IDEA requirementsfollowing existing procedures for student file selectionuse existing data to increase the number of students revieweddevelop policies for the informal removal of students from special education programsmonitoring the use of informal removalsimplementing an alternative risk ratio for monitoring suspension rates of small schools

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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