Texas Special Education Disgrace-“It Was All a Numbers Game”

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Houston Chronicle has delivered an expose on a covert and “successful” effort by the Texas Education Agency to create a defacto cap of 8.5% on the number of Texas public school students who would receive special education services. Successful gets air quotes btw if you define success as avoiding delivering special education services to hundreds of thousands of kids by keeping them cooped up a Section 504 no man’s land.

The process of identifying children for special education services is conducted by human beings and thus involves all sorts of error- children who do not actually have disabilities are often identified for services, students who do have disabilities do not receive services, students who do have disabilities don’t always receive the correct services. It’s a difficult process. The Texas Education Agency created an arbitrary target for special education enrollment in 2004 of 8.5% of a school population, effectively incentivizing districts to deny services to students. In theory the restraining of services could have come in the category most prone to over-identification: specific learning disability. If that had been the case maybe, maybe there would be a silver lining to this story. Instead the Chronicle found across the board reductions in all disability types. From the Chronicle:

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Perhaps someone could attempt to justify this practice by claiming that Texas schools did a fantastic job educating the 8.5% of students they provided services. Well, not so much:


Having the state effectively punish districts going over an arbitrary cap on the percentage of special education students at a minimum violates the spirit of federal special education law. As flawed as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the associated practices remain, the unmistakable intent of the law has been to provide special education services to all students who need it. IDEA, warts and all, stands as landmark civil rights legislation for children with disabilities and the practices adopted by unelected officials at the Texas Education Agency must be viewed as an attempt to subvert this legislation at the expense of some of the most vulnerable students.

The reader should note that while the Chronicle article places blame for the 8.5% policy squarely upon the Texas Education Agency, this practice could not have endured for so long without the active acquiescence of Texas school districts. If they had objected to this policy, as was their moral duty, we would not have learned of this a decade after formulation as a part of an investigative report. Texas school districts have long complained however of the costs associated with special education, and that state and federal funds fail to cover the full cost of providing services. Kudos to the school officials who spoke to the Chronicle’s investigators, but the number who quietly went along with this greatly outnumbered those who made any attempt to set things right.

The Florida approach of setting special needs students free to attend public and private schools with their state funding represents a profoundly more humane approach to special education. If the districts resent having to divert dollars from general education to special education, let special needs family seek out a solution with their “inadequate” state dollars. The Chronicle article represents another chapter in the long book of what happens when people are forced to rely upon the goodwill and sound thinking of soulless bureaucrats.

No one enjoys bragging on Texas more than me, but this is nothing short of disgraceful and needs to be made right.

12 Responses to Texas Special Education Disgrace-“It Was All a Numbers Game”

  1. Greg Forster says:

    I think you mischaracterize the “spirit” of IDEA, which since 1999 has imposed an arbitrary cap on the federal portion of special ed funding similar to the cap in Texas (and many other states).

    These caps were inspired by real abuses; Jay and I did a study finding that the presence or absence of these caps at the state level was related to the rate at which students were classified special ed.

    Of course, a much better way to fight the perverse financial incentive to classify students as special ed is a McKay style voucher; see Jay and Marcus Winters’ work here:

    Click to access EEP_Public_School_Response_Special_Ed_Vouchers.pdf

  2. matthewladner says:

    The feds set a goal of funding 40% of sped and promptly never met it with the possible exception of the stimulus period in the early BO administration. It has always thus been an “underfunded mandate” of sorts, but the clear intent of the law is to require public schools to serve the needs of special needs students.

    Totally agree that setting these students free constitutes a much better approach than putting them into a waiting room.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Your description is only correct as applied to the original law. Since 1999 the law’s goal of promising free additional services to everyone who needs them has been balanced by a recognition that this kind of promise has a tendency to generate ever-growing populations of people who are designated as “needing” the services (partly because of snowballing public demand, but much more because the bureaucracy itself benefits by pushing as many people into the category as possible), and thus – gasp! – socialized delivery of services must necessarily be a prelude to the coercive introduction of price controls. Who could ever have predicted such an unforeseeable result? Oh, wait.

  3. matthewladner says:

    Please tell me more about the 1999 change. Uncle Sam has generally been relatively stingy with his own money (relative to initial commitments) and expansive with the use of state/local resources.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Until 99 feds funded special ed on a per student basis. Amount of funding was less than promised, as you note, but what was given was by a per student formula. After 99 the feds set a cap in each state (based on an arbitrary formula) for how many students, as a percent of the total, each state could get funds for. See the chapter in Education Myths or Jay’s articles in Ed Next and elsewhere.

  4. matthewladner says:

    I remember the bounty formula funding work, but this seems to be a different kettle of fish to me. If the federal government decided on a maximum % of special education kids a district could have, past which they would begin to penalize and harass the district with audits, then it would be like what Texas did.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m not sure how important the difference is. It comes down to:

      1) Federal and many states’ systems: We decide in advance that you don’t have more than X% special ed, because that’s the number we’re willing to pay for and/or we just find it implausible that the true number of students needing services is higher than X%, so we don’t even ask how many you actually have, we just fund X%.

      2) Texas: We decide in advance that you shouldn’t have more than X% special ed, because that’s the number we’re willing to pay for and/or we just find it implausible that the true number of students needing services is higher than X%, so if you classify more than X% special ed we’ll audit you aggressively to get you down to X%.

      I suppose system 1 has the benefits of transparency and efficiency. But it stretches credulity to argue that system 2 violates the “spirit” of IDEA, which uses system 1.

      • matthewladner says:

        The federal system has a formula to derive the amount of federal funds they are going to contribute, but still mandates that districts provide services. Thus it is more liberal with state and local dollars than their own dollars, but still requires districts to provide services.

        The Houston Chronicle story related that districts were so desperate to avoid state punishment that they were trying to nudge special needs students out of public schools entirely, keeping them in 504 holding patterns without services etc. Even if you were inclined to think uncharitably about a non-bounty funding formula, it seems that the districts would have the incentive to identify the most in need of services, avoid misdiagnosis as a matter of scarcity etc. This does not at all sound like what has been going on in Texas, since all disability types declined. The number of blind children in other words didn’t drop while the number of blind children receiving services did.

        Thus the two situations seem meaningfully different to me- as the intent of federal law is to include special needs students even if they passed the costs off primarily to others. The impact of the Texas practice is to deny services once the 8.5% threshold is met-unless we want to believe that the incidence of all disability types simultaneously declined until it coincidentally reached the 8.5% statewide threshold.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Texas’ shenanigans do violate the spirit of the part of IDEA that mandates services to all students.

        You know what else violates the spirit of that part of IDEA? The funding formula of IDEA, which incentivizes those shenanigans.

      • matthewladner says:

        Okay but “a diagnosis neutral federal funding formula made me do it” is not exactly a compelling excuse is it?

      • Greg Forster says:

        I’m not excusing Texas, I’m identifying accomplices.

  5. […] protestations, complaints, and handwringing that swiftly followed were to be expected—Matt Ladner weighed in (on Jay Greene’s blog) within hours, for example, terming Texas “nothing short of […]

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