Is Texas denying kids access to special education?

jwj Back to School 0139

A Houston Chronicle investigation suggests that the state’s policies on monitoring special education students are keeping many students out of the program. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A massive Houston Chronicle investigation published last weekend nailed down the forces behind a public education phenomenon that’s been talked about for years, answering the question: Why are Texas’ special education numbers so low?

According to the Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal, state education policies have systematically pushed enrollments in special education classes down to meet an arbitrary benchmark of 8.5 percent — a benchmark that was enacted at a moment of state budgetary crisis and apparently plucked from the sky to “move the needle.”

It’s a suggestion that has been made before. The Texas Observer concluded as much, with far less detail than Rosenthal, in January.

That said, the data collected by Rosenthal is startling. Since the benchmark was implemented in 2004, the proportion of Texas students receiving special education services has dropped from near the national average of 13 percent to 8.5 percent last year. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 districts are in Texas, including Houston and Dallas.

According to Rosenthal:

“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.”

In Austin ISD, the special education numbers have dropped, but not by as much as in its urban sister districts. In a phone conversation this week, Austin special education officials preferred to talk about the relatively stable rates over the last decade of between 9 and 10 percent, not the sharp decrease from 12.2 to less than 10 percent within a few years of when the benchmark system was implemented.

“[The benchmark] doesn’t affect us,” said Edmund Oropez, the Austin district’s chief officer for teaching and learning. “It’s more of a guide to be mindful. We’re going to serve our kids no matter what their needs are.”

Other districts tell a different story, one that includes worrying about fines and penalties from the state which tracks more than 20 special education indicators.Texas Education Agency officials say those fears are misplaced. TEA has no authority to assess fines, according to spokesman Gene Acuña, and no single indicator would trigger state intervention.

Failing to meet a single benchmark may not matter on its own, but if a district is facing multiple issues in its special education program, it’s hard to see how it can’t be a factor in district and campus discussions on how to implement the program. Evaluations are not cheap and by federal law, districts only have 45 days to complete them once they are requested. The district currently has 258 pending evaluations, the bulk of which are second, third and fourth graders.

In fact, Austin has been under a state special education improvement plan for four of the last five years. The reason according to Jean Bahney, executive director for Austin’s special education program, has been not  the benchmarking system, but rather failing to provide comparable services to students who transfer in and out of the district and not meeting the 45-day window required for evaluations.

Even so, the Texas Education Agency’s monitoring system  not only dinged Austin’s enrollment rate as above the enrollment benchmark, but cited the district for suspending large numbers of special education students in disciplinary proceedings. As many as 33 percent of special education students received out of school suspensions in those years, more than double the rate for the overall enrollment. Last year the out of school suspension rate for special education was reported at 21 percent, the state’s benchmark rate is 6 percent.

While Rosenthal concentrated his reporting on changes to the state budget in 2003, officials at TEA point out the federal education law changed around the same time as substantial changes to federal rules for educating children with disabilities.

A statement from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath defends the agency’s benchmarking policy:

“All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need. However, research shows it is not in the best interest of students who do not need special education support to be erroneously admitted into special education programs.

As a result, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) includes language to ensure states take steps to prevent over-identification and disproportionate special education representation. Consistent with this law, in 2004 the Texas Education Agency adopted a performance monitoring system to help draw attention to the risks associated with over-identification and disproportionate representation while still ensuring all students eligible for special education services receive those services.”

Holding districts to standards can be a useful way to make sure they are not inappropriately warehousing students. However, the benchmarks used need to be based in some type of sound best practices or demographic reality, and while the federal law was changed in 2004, it still doesn’t explain Texas’ race to the bottom. Just because the state wishes there were fewer disabled students does not necessarily make it so.

Children are not widgets, as common sense should make obvious. Holding school districts responsible for higher standards, under-funding public schools and then hounding districts for attempting to serve their entire special education population is morally repugnant and fiscally shortsighted. But so is using special education as a classroom management or discipline solution.

By withholding services until a child’s older years, the state may actually incur more long-term costs for mental health treatments, juvenile justice and more intensive special education therapies — not to mention the damage caused to children who view themselves of social and academic failures for conditions beyond their immediate control. Special education students who are suspended show far less academic progress than those that aren’t.

The Republican Legislative leadership has been silent on the Chronicle’s investigation, which is little surprise. Close examination of the benchmarks, by definition, means coming up with more money to pay for the programs that special education students require. That debate continues to be a non-starter for conservatives.

But Texas legislators should take care. They were stunned in 2013 when an army of parents rose up to finally protest the abundance of standardized testing, forcing them to back down from even stricter standards for graduation.

Special education parents are breed apart, having poured countless hours into filing paper work, attending teacher committee conferences, dealing with discipline issues, carting their children to therapies they can hardly afford and ordering private evaluations when campuses tell them to wait a little longer.

I suspect lawmakers will be seeing many of them at the Capitol dome come January.