School & District Management

How Texas Keeps Special Education Enrollment Low

By Christina A. Samuels — September 12, 2016 3 min read
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A little more than a decade ago, Texas set a “performance indicator” of 8.5 percent for its special education enrollment.

Ever since then, districts have tried to adhere to that percentage, even when doing so meant denying services to thousands of children, the Houston Chronicle found in a special report.

Children were given Section 504 plans, which provide some accommodations for students with disabilities but do not carry the same level of legal obligations and protections as plans developed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Section 504 refers to a part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973). In some cases, reporter Brian Rosenthal found, parents were encouraged to withdraw their children from public school.

The state said that the 8.5 percent benchmark was never a cap on enrollment. The decline in special education enrollment in the state is due to factors such as targeted assistance and early intervention, officials say.

From the article:

By 2000, according to data collected by the federal government, 13.3 percent of kids got some form of specialized education services—even if it was just 20 minutes of speech therapy per week. In Texas, 12.1 percent of kids got services that year, the ninth-lowest rate in the nation. Nevertheless, the Texas Education Agency decided the percentage was too high, according to interviews with dozens of former agency employees. ... The concern grew in 2003, when lawmakers cut the TEA's budget by $1.1 billion, forcing it to lay off 15 percent of staffers. The next year, the agency set the target as one part of a new monitoring protocol known as the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System, or PBMAS. The instructions were clear: School districts could get a perfect score on that part of the scorecard by giving special education services to fewer than 8.5 percent of students. If they served more, they would lose points. Districts that scored poorly on the PBMAS could be fined, visited by regulators, compelled to complete "Corrective Action Plans" or taken over entirely, the system manual said.

The Chronicle’s reporting is an excellent on-the-ground, state-based perspective on two issues that I’ve covered from a national point of view: the number of minorities represented in special education, and the changing numbers of students enrolled in special education.

Recently, I also noted that nationwide, the number of students in special education is rising, after several years of falling enrollment. My article looked only at national statistics, not state-by-state numbers. But the Chronicle article noted that the state has kept its growth in number of students with autism down, even as national figures show the numbers of students with autism nearly doubling over the last 10 years. (My statistics differ from the Chronicle’s numbers because I focused on students ages 6 to 21. The Chronicle based its reporting on students ages 3 to 21.)

Rosenthal says that national special education enrollment decrease is driven almost entirely by Texas. It’s true that a single large state can have an outsized impact. In my article, I found that New York was responsible a third of the special education enrollment increase between 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Special educators have long been concerned that minority students have been over-enrolled in special education classes, particularly in categories that still carry stigma, such as emotional an intellectual disabilities. Studies by researchers Paul Morgan and George Farkas have said that the problem in special education isn’t over enrollment; it’s that minority students aren’t getting access to the special education services that they are entitled to. Their research has shown that among children who have the same sorts of academic or behavioral challenges, minority students are less likely to get special education services than white children.

This is a complex issue. In an explainer accompanying the story, Rosenthal, the reporter, said that minority overrepresentation is still a problem for the state, and so the falling numbers of special education enrollment cannot be tied to districts deciding to place fewer black children in special education, for example. The story also states, however, that the 8.5 percent indicator has particularly affected English-language learners, and children who live in big cities in Texas, such as Houston and Dallas. That’s because parents who do not speak English find it hard to navigate the system to get an evaluation for their child, Rosenthal writes. And urban districts have been among the districts most actively lowering their special education enrollments.

The story notes, “Overall, Texas has above-average rates of disability risk factors, making it even more surprising that it has the lowest special ed rate in the country.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.