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.

Heads You Win, Tails You Still Win

March 5, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to testify to the Senate Education committee in Texas today on the experience with parental choice programs for special needs children. One of the items of discussion was the following chart:

McKay Texas 1This phenomenon is often discussed regarding special education, but seldom quantified. In 2004 however officials from Education Service Center 20 (a regional body roughly covering school districts in the San Antonio area) provided the following chart to quantify the additional cost per special education student in a number of school districts. There were costs above and beyond those covered by state funding, and thus represented in effect a transfer from district general funds into special education funds on a per special education student basis.


Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby also testified to this interim committee in 2004, and she made the point that since school districts have been complaining that states don’t cover the full costs of special education for decades, that they have no cause to complain about students leaving with their (inadequate) funding. Districts can either keep these funds in the general education effort, or spend more on their remaining special education students (approximately 5% of Florida special education students directly utilize McKay but far more benefit from it) but either way they benefit.



Amid Talk of Gun Control, Don’t Forget School Reform

January 22, 2013

(Guest Post by William Mattox)

Amid all the talk about gun control and mental health reform, one important question begged by last month’s tragedy in Connecticut has gone unasked:  Is there anything we can do about the structure of education that might help lower the risk of another school massacre?  I believe there is – and a poignant story (and some very interesting research data) will help explain why.

Two of my children once attended a small private school in a town where we had just moved.  Early in the fall semester, another new kid at that school – a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who would now be 19 or 20 years old – had several emotional “meltdowns” as he sought to adjust to his new routine.  This unsettling behavior caused some school officials, and a number of concerned parents, to wonder if our school was equipped to handle the challenges presented by this student (whom I’ll call “Bradley”).

Bradley’s teachers rallied to his cause.  They appreciated his keen intellect.  And they were reluctant to give up on him – partly because Bradley had had a rough childhood.  (His condition had been misdiagnosed for years, causing household stress that contributed to his parents’ divorce).  But there was an even greater reason for the teachers’ reluctance: Since this was a Christian school, the teachers felt they had a special responsibility to “go the extra mile” with social outcasts like Bradley.  Even if this was, at times, difficult.

So, Bradley remained a part of our school.  And the teachers who’d had experience working with Asperger’s students helped those who’d had none.  And they all sought to teach their students some important “life lessons” about dealing with people who are different from you.

Apparently, some of these lessons got through.  One day, I chaperoned a dance at the school.  When it came time for the first number, I saw one of the most popular teen girls in the school maneuver into a position where she could be the first girl Bradley asked to dance.  This girl didn’t have a romantic interest in Bradley.  But she did have a heart of compassion – and a maturity beyond her years.  And she recognized that no girl would be apt to dance with Bradley unless someone like her saw past his social awkwardness and validated his worth.  As a human being.  As a child made in the image of God.

After the dance, Bradley got into his mother’s van and made a peculiar announcement.  “Today, I placed my hand on the hip of four different girls,” he said.  These odd words brought tears to his mother’s eyes, for she understood them to mean that her socially-awkward son’s yearning for human connection, for some measure of normal acceptance, had been met in a most meaningful way that day.

Now, I don’t want to insinuate that an episode like this could have only occurred at a Christian school – or that it would have happened at every faith-based private school.  But when I consider how their Christian faith affected the way these teachers and students treated Bradley, I can’t help but affirm the Florida policymakers who created the McKay scholarship program that made it possible for Bradley to attend a private school of his family’s choosing.  Especially since a recent research study suggests that Bradley’s experience at that school was not that unusual.

According to a Manhattan Institute study, 47 percent of McKay scholarship recipients had been picked on often at their local public school – and 25 percent had been victimized physically. At their new schools, chosen for them by their parents, only 5 percent of these special needs students experienced frequent harassment and only 6 percent were physically mistreated.

In view of all this, I think every state ought to adopt programs like Florida’s McKay scholarships (or Arizona’s Educational Savings Accounts) which give families of special needs students the freedom to choose learning options for their children beyond those available at their local public school.  For many Asperger’s children (and other students with special needs) yearn for human connection and social acceptance – and delight when others affirm their worth in the eyes of God.

William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and a Florida Voices columnist.  His four children have all attended public high schools.

McKay Scholarship Mom Goes to War with Tenure in Florida Video

January 29, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

W*O*W, watch the video.

The Argument Clinic

January 5, 2010

Stuart Buck and I have a post over on the Education Next Blog addressing a letter that Sara Mead of the New America Foundation wrote in response to our article on special education vouchers.

Here’s a taste of our response:

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Of course, she could just say that she isn’t.

Memo to Rhee: McKay Scholarships for DCPS!

October 19, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Erin Dillion over at the Quick and the Ed has posted a copy of a table on Special Education private placements from a recent research report on parental choice in Washington DC (see below).

So, is it just me, or would a McKay Scholarship program be a fantastic idea for DCPS? Rich kids are already getting private placements with the help of specialized attorneys, often Cadillac placements. McKay creates a maximum amount per pupil matched to their funding, and democratizes the private placement process: no lawyers necessary.

DCPS, like other school systems, has likely been complaining about “inadequate” special ed funding for decades. Typically this narrative involves shunting millions out of general ed funding into special ed. In DC, this story has been reinforced by private placement lawsuits, which often result in far more than the normal per capita funding, and create legal costs.

A  approach would substantially improve this. No lawsuits, no massive awards. If the parent of a child with a disability is disatisfied, they simply walk away with a predetermined maximum amount.

Alternatively- we can leave private placements as mostly something the rich white kids with attorneys access, at a sustantial cost to DCPS.