Special Education identification: what we’re up against in Texas

READ: “DENIED: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Students out of Special Education,” by Brian M. Rosenthal

In today’s Houston Chronicle, reporter Brian M. Rosenthal exposed a decade-long policy that has led to the denial of special education services for hundreds of thousands of kids. In a nutshell: the national average of kids who receive special education services is 13%; in Texas, our state education agency (TEA) has artificially kept our average to 8.5%.

“Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services ā€” 8.5 percent ā€” 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.”

TEA has accomplished this goal by systematically denying services to kids with disabilities of all types. (Rosenthal provides a close look at several common strategies districts employ to deny service.) Kids in large cities–particularly those for whom English is not a native language–suffer the most, Rosenthal has found. “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 are in Texas.”

Advocates, attorneys, and parents in Texas have been aware of these numbers. Legislators, according to this investigation, apparently have not been aware of these numbers, nor of the TEA’s policy. TEA continues to deny that the severe reduction in identification (from around 12% in 2004 to 8.5% now) was purposeful. District Special Education coordinators also fail to see the numbers as a problem, arguing tautologically that their local levels reflect state averages so they must be on target. I’ve done independent research about identification in my district and neighboring districts and have found the following data (freely available on TEA’s website). The percentages below are the district percentages of kids served under IDEA in the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent data available.

  • Austin ISD: 9.9% (identification rose to 10.2% last year)
  • Round Rock ISD: 8.5% (exactly like the state average, hmm.)
  • Eanes ISD (a district in / near the city of Austin): 7.9%
  • Lake Travis (just north-west of Austin): 7.0%
  • Leander ISD (a bit more north of the Lake Travis district): 9.7%
  • Hutto ISD (just east of Round Rock, where I live): 9.2%

I could go on and on, but this is enough to make the point: every one of these districts falls far short of the national average. And contrary to what districts argue, these numbers aren’t lower because early intervention eases the need for support by the time children are ready for Kindergarten. Let me put it this way: if a deaf / hearing impaired child is identified as needing services at birth, how will she be less deaf / hearing impaired at age 5 and less in need of accommodations at school? Sounds ridiculous, yet this Chronicle study has found that identification / provision of services has fallen by 15% for deaf / haring impaired children since 2004. Rosenthal estimates that if Texas actually complied with Federal law, about 250,000 more kids would receive services (In 2015-2016, Texas public schools enrolled almost 5.3 million kids.) What happens to these kids?

“Parents have pulled thousands of them out of public school in favor of home schooling or expensive private schools, according to interviews and data.

Others have been left to languish in regular classrooms without the individualized help they need, advocates said.

Many have fallen behind, become depressed and been suspended or expelled, the advocates said. Some have even entered the criminal justice system or otherwise required intensive adult services that cost far more than special education, they said.”

Homeschooling a kid because schools can’t accommodate him? You don’t say.

In a separate blog, I’ll deal with how these numbers overlap with 2e identification. It’s an interrelated SNAFU with its own glorious details. In the meantime, If you are a parent in Texas, know a parent in Texas, or simply care about whether or not ALL of the children in Texas deserve a Free and Appropriate Public Education, please share Rosenthal’s research. See how your state stacks up with Texas. Be suspicious if your state’s rate of identification is under the national average and dig deeper. Join us as we put pressure on our state officials.

*UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle is seeking additional testimony from families whose children have been denied Special Education services. If you want to participate in this on-going investigation, here is a form to contact the newspaper.

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