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

September 13, 2016

(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.

Math Gains by State Charter Sector

September 9, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So just for fun I decided to calculate the cohort math gains for states and state charter sectors in NAEP. Note that on the charter side there are considerable sampling issues in deriving an estimate for a relatively small group of students, making it a really great idea to check a secondary source of data rather than accepting an 8th grade NAEP score for charter students as written on a stone tablet by a higher power.  Various other caveats also apply- high gain scores are not the same as high scores, for instance. The number one gainer below (MN charters) does not have an especially high average 8th grade math score, and in fact lags about ten points below the statewide average for Minnesota. The opposite is true of the number two gainer (AZ charters) which have significantly higher overall scores than their statewide average and high scores overall. Charter sectors dominated by lots of new schools getting their sea legs full of students taking an academic hit getting used to a new school can create an optical illusion in a snapshot, such as those provided by NAEP. Many of these sectors may be on their way to improving in other words as ineffective/undesirable charters close, new ones open and survive, etc.

While NAEP has sampled the same cohort of students as both 4th and 8th graders, they are not of course testing the same students. Students move around, both between states and between district and charter schools. I don’t expect that many states are losing their high performing math students at high rates and having them replaced by low performing math students. In other words, at the state level kids moving around probably does not amount to much because things average out in the aggregate. I’m less confident of this being the case at the charter sector level. There are other caveats that could be dwelt upon, but that would start to violate the Prime Directive.

So okay you’ve been warned- each of these gain scores needs to be viewed in a broader context- far more context than I am going to be able provide here. Having said all of that:


Charter sectors cover both the top and the bottom of the chart- 7 out of the top 10, and the top four overall gains.

Down at the bottom of the chart alas we see the bottom five spots covered by charter sectors. So, Pennsylvania charters, we need to talk.  The NAEP listed your 2011 average 4th grade math score as 241, and your 2015 average 8th grade score as 249. I **ahem** double checked the numbers just to be sure I hadn’t made some mistake. The district numbers for Philadelphia in the TUDA- 225 for 2011 4th graders, 267 for 2015 8th graders.  Both of those scores are catastrophically terrible, but the second one is at least meaningfully higher than the first one. Something goofy with these NAEP numbers? PA charters dominated by dropout recovery programs? Who let the dogs out?

As stated above, no hard and fast conclusions should be drawn from this little insomnia driven exercise, but PA charters might want to turn up the water pressure:

Charters Are a Halfway House: Union Slip-Up Edition

September 8, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

America’s Last Education Labor Reporter proves once again why America needs to have at least one education labor reporter. He points out that a recent bureaucratic victory for the blob, in which the NLRB declared charter schools subject to unionization under federal labor law, also implies that if teacher unions attempt to organize charters they will be subject to financial disclosure and other restrictions under that same federal labor law:

If you think this would be a small price to pay, remember that when the Bush Administration’s Labor Department tried to reinterpret the LMRDA to include 32 NEA state affiliates, the union filed suit, calling the revision “unfair” and “motivated by an ill-will toward unions in general, and NEA and its affiliates in particular.”

A mixed victory for the unions, but it’s also a reminder of the problem built into the design of charter schools.

Charters are, in the final analysis, government schools, and thus can never be more than a halfway house to real (i.e. private as well as public) school choice.

As Reagan said in Berlin: “A bird on a tether, no matter how long the rope, can always be pulled back.”

It’s a thought that Common Core supporters would also do well to ponder.

The Education of High Performing Students

September 6, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fordham released an interesting report last week making the case for including high performing students as a subgroup in state accountability systems. Like most of you who spend your time reading obscure blogs written by wonks on a continuing mission to entertain themselves, I am sympathetic to the needs of high achieving students. In fact, recently a person who served as an official in the administration of Janet Napolitano when she was Governor of Arizona told me that gifted education was THE issue when they took office in 2003. The parents of gifted students were up in arms that there was very little to nothing to meet the needs of their children, and elected officials were hearing about it non-stop.

Then, I was told, the parents discovered BASIS charter schools. Things quieted down.

Arizona had badly over-exposed testing items in those days, and the dreaded worksheets drilling to those over-exposed items were too much in evidence once students reached the 3rd grade (the first year of state standardized testing). I experienced this first hand as a parent, and have heard the tale repeated many times in conversations with other parents during the sad, dying days of the AIMS exam. We called it “the 3rd grade wall.”  One of the priorities for those concerned with the education of high achieving students should be to maintain the integrity of the state testing system (aggressively curtailing item exposure and excessive district test prep) imo.

So anyway, I don’t have a problem with including high-achieving students as a subgroup, but I also don’t see it as strong tea.  The NAEP seems to suggest likewise. I ran cohort gains on 4th (2011) to 8th grade math (2015) for a relatively generic group of relatively high performing students- non-FRL eligible students in the general education program. Fordham identified four states as leaders in high-achieving subgroup accountability: Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina.

Math general ed non FRL

So putting on my social science cap, let me note that I have no idea what drives these numbers. One can certainly speculate with some confidence that socio-economics has something to do with it. Massachusetts and New Jersey top the list for instance, and just happen to be two of the four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures. DC also did well, but remember this is a very select slice of DC- the part that is knocking the ball out of the park. To the extent that policy has an impact on this (unknown) we should expect lags, etc. so try not to get too excited.

It’s hard to draw many conclusions from this, other than Arkansas’ dead last ranking seems to indicate that states need to do a great deal more than put high-achieving students in as a subgroup. My advice for Arkansas from the Cactus Patch (we are nipping at the heels of MA and NJ despite being much less wealthy and spending far less per pupil than either state btw) is, ah, see about passing some strong choice programs. Also, get BASIS on line one, stat.


CFB Rocks the Opening Weekend

September 5, 2016


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

After botching last year’s playoff with an ill-advised NYE experiment, College Football came roaring back with a fantastic opening to the 2016 season. Houston puts an exclamation mark on its application to the Big 12 with a convincing win over Oklahoma, Aggy fans get set up for their usual soul-crushing disappointment with an early win, LSU athletic director friends Tom Herman on Facebook after stepping on a bear trap with a “neutral site game” against Wiscy @ Lambeau Field, Alabama looks like the 1985 Chicago Bears (again) while picking their fangs with USC, solid Clemson/Auburn, Georgia/NC matchups. Oh, and Texas defeats No. 10 Notre Dame in double overtime.

No that’s a true freshman throwing that ball, not Tom Brady.


I promise- it only looks like Tom Brady.

Did I miss anything? Oh yeah Arkansas had a dramatic one point victory over a directional school from Louisiana. Borderline necrotic….or something.  Oh wait, I know, Ole Miss and Florida State will be playing tonight. So the playoff has seemed to change the incentive structure for out of conference games. The playoff selection committee does not prize victories over tomato can opponents, so some of the big boys are lining them up and playing big match ups- which is great for the fans.

Opening weekend a’int over yet!

Ready Player One

September 2, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I am 9 chapters into Ready Player One by Austin Texas uber-geek Ernest Cline and I can already tell you that this is basically the Forrest Gump for Gen-X, only waaaay better since it is about us instead of those tedious Baby Boomers.

If you were a teen in the 1980s, played tons of Atari 2600 video games, saw it as your purpose in life to put the high score on your favorite arcade game, played Dungeons and Dragons, were a film geek and listened to lots of Rush, then this book is a missing piece of your soul.  Cline wrote this book just for you, and Spielberg is currently filming the silver screen version.

If not, well you don’t know what you were missing.

Download now, read later, thank me after that. You are welcome in advance.


Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.