A longstanding federal consent decree that governs state supervision of special education services in New Orleans charter schools could soon be coming to an end.

The consent decree, approved in 2015, settled a federal class-action suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of a group of families of New Orleans students. The suit alleged that the city’s schools failed to enroll disabled students, identify enrolled students who may have required special education services or properly provide those services when they were required. The settlement required the state to track special education data and conduct intensive monitoring on schools identified as potentially out of compliance with special education requirements.

The state Department of Education and NOLA Public Schools district have met the requirements in the consent decree for several years in a row and could soon ask a federal judge to terminate it. But at a recent status conference, the judge assigned them a final task.

According to records from the Oct. 1 status conference, the Louisiana Department of Education and NOLA Public Schools district hinted that they were ready to request the federal oversight end. But plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center — responding to U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey’s concerns that the progress schools have made under the consent decree could be lost — proposed that the parties meet to figure out a plan to maintain it. Zainey “found this to be an excellent suggestion” and he turned it into an order

Now, the two sides must discuss a plan to continue monitoring schools for potential problems — without a federal court order in place — and to ensure “proactive” special education compliance rather than what they described as “reactive” compliance.

While monitoring over the last five years of the agreement has targeted specific schools and selected schools at random, it has largely relied on data from previous years and issuing warnings after the fact. Data errors also prolonged the federal oversight and in some years caused the state to monitor the wrong schools. The state maintains it corrected that problem by monitoring schools the following year, something lawyers for SPLC argue shows the state isn’t ready to leave federal oversight.

Asked about the order, a Louisiana Department of Education spokesman said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation. NOLA Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear when the meeting or request to dismiss the settlement may occur.

Meanwhile, last month the school district issued notices of non-compliance to two charter schools for special education issues flagged by the state. (Though discussed at the Orleans Parish School Board’s September meeting, the notices weren’t posted on the district’s website — something the district has done routinely in the past — until The Lens inquired.)

Walter L. Cohen College Prep has been under a “corrective action plan” since last year, after the state flagged the school for failing to comply with special education identification requirements, outlined in special education law as “child find.” As a result of continued consent decree monitoring, the state elevated Cohen’s corrective action plan to an “intensive” corrective action plan after it failed to fix the problem. 

The state also placed Success at Thurgood Marshall, formerly Success Preparatory Academy, under a corrective action plan for failing to meet enrollment requirements. The state evaluates special education enrollment based on how many students with disabilities chose not to return the following school year.

“Child find” and enrollment are two of the four areas the state monitors under the 2015 consent agreement. The others are related services — the actual special education services such as speech and physical therapy — and discipline rates for students with disabilities. 

State spokesman Ted Beasley said the two New Orleans charter schools were warned in July and have been working with the state.

“Corrective action plans require frequent interactions between the school and state education agency. It is an on-going, and interactive process which requires regular updates and evidence of activities completed be submitted to the monitoring team,” he wrote in an email.

“Timelines for completion vary depending on the CAP activity and timelines established,” Beasley wrote. “Each school will receive follow-up monitoring once CAP activities have been completed and will have full opportunity to exit the CAP at that time.”

Both schools must resolve the issues in their state corrective action plans before the district will lift its warnings.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...