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:

texas-vs-fl-sped

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.