Special Education

Ed. Dept. Finds Texas Suppressed Enrollment of Special Education Students

By Christina A. Samuels — January 12, 2018 5 min read
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Disability advocates hailed the U.S. Department of Education’s finding that Texas for years put roadblocks in the path of children who potentially qualified for special education—a clear violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“It shows that they are willing to stand up when a state is clearly not doing what’s right,” said Robbi Cooper, a leader of the parent advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Texas and the mother of a son with dyslexia. “Now let’s just hope that we can get the policies right.”

The Jan. 11 monitoring report from the office of special education services—the first to be issued under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—outlines a series of IDEA violations by the state.

In conversations with Texas parents and educators, federal officials heard conflicting reports about how children with dyslexia should be screened and served. Children who struggled in school were shifted to response-to-intervention programs that were supposed to meet their needs, but, once there, some languished for years, the monitoring report said.

In other cases, the report said that districts sidestepped special education identification by providing services through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 allows students to receive supports to access the general education curriculum, but it does not offer the same level of student rights and school responsibilities as the IDEA.

All of those problems were tied to a Texas policy, now banned, that subjected school districts to additional state scrutiny if their special education enrollment rose above 8.5 percent. The state education department called the figure just a benchmark for districts, but many school officials treated it as a cap. The 8.5 percent figure came to light in 2016 through a series of investigative pieces published in the Houston Chronicle.

In the wake of those news articles, the U.S. Department of Education embarked on a listening tour through Texas, solicited comments on its website, and interviewed Texas educators, culminating in the monitoring report.

To fix the problem, Texas must now find and test students who may have qualified for special education but were not evaluated; provide guidance to districts about their responsibilities under the IDEA; and create a district monitoring plan. The federal office of special education programs indicated it would work with the state, still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, on an mutually agreeable timeline.

Texas Officials Promise Action

State officials, who originally denied that the 8.5 percent benchmark had prevented any students from getting services, took a different tack, when the letter from the federal government was released.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, directed the Texas Education Agency to create a corrective action plan within seven days.

“The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of TEA to hold districts accountable, are worthy of criticism,” Abbott said in a statement. “TEA must take steps now to significantly increase the oversight provided to ensure our special education students are receiving the services they deserve.” In 2017, Abbott signed a law that would bar the state education agency from placing a cap or creating a benchmark on special education enrollment.

Mike Morath, the state education commissioner, said in a statement: “I share Gov. Abbott’s urgency to quickly address the issues identified in this federal monitoring report. More importantly, I share the governor’s commitment to doing what’s right for special education students in our public schools.”

Morath noted that his department has already increased the number of staff members who provide technical assistance and training to school districts.

“The corrective action plan called for by the governor will outline the specific steps TEA will take to address all the identified issues. Parent and special education advocacy group representatives will play an ongoing integral role in helping shape this plan, as well as all efforts of the agency in the years ahead,” Morath said.

The Houston Chronicle series said that the state created the 8.5 percent benchmark in 2004. That year, about 12 percent of the state’s students were enrolled in special education. Nationally, the percentage stood at about 14 percent.

Over the years, the special education enrollment in the state steadily dropped. Nationally, special education enrollment dipped a bit as well, but not at the same rate as in Texas. By 2014, special education students made 8.5 percent of the state’s overall school enrollment, while nationally it was 13.5 percent.

Violations of Federal Law

The articles in the Chronicle captured stories of children whose disabilities would automatically qualify them for special education services in other states. For example, a child with Down syndrome was initially denied special education services because he could read on grade level. Another child, who was born prematurely and was legally blind, was denied services because she could hold written materials close enough to her face to read.

During its listening tour and interviews with school officials, the federal special education office captured other stories of special education denials.

Federal officials were told, for example, that the state’s “Dyslexia Handbook” said that children with difficulty reading must present an additional disabling condition before they could even be evaluated for special education services. This is a violation of the IDEA, which does not require a child to be suspected of multiple disabilities before a screening takes place.

Texas’ use of response to intervention was also called out in the monitoring report. RTI is an instructional framework that focuses on addressing problems early with students who show signs of academic weakness. Among its components are screening for academic trouble spots and targeted, research-based “interventions” of increasing intensity, based on a student’s needs. The increasingly intensive interventions are generally known as “tiers.”

Many state educators said they thought a child had to go through every tier of an RTI process before they could be screened. In fact, the Education Department told states in 2011 that RTI can’t be used to delay or deny a special education evaluation. Teachers also said they weren’t clear about how much progress children should be making to move out of RTI.

Dustin Rynders, the education director at Disability Rights Texas, discovered the special education enrollment target several years ago, when parents started complaining to his organization about the fact that they could not get services for their children.

“What I find most important is for the state to be reminded that you cannot ignore this population,” Rynders said in an interview. The findings “have elevated a conversation around students with disabilities that I don’t think we’ve ever had in our state.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Finds Texas Suppressed Spec. Ed. Enrollment

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