29 Sep Uncovering Texas’ Strategy to Slash Much-Needed Special Education Services

September 29, 2016

By: Charles Ornstein

Source: propublica.org

Federal law mandates that school districts provide special education services to students with disabilities–physical, emotional or developmental. But outside the public’s view, the state of Texas has decided that fewer students should get those services. It pressured school districts to meet an artificial benchmark of 8.5 percent, a rate far below that of any state, according to aHouston Chronicle investigation.

The article, by Brian M. Rosenthal, documents how “unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids” out of special education.
Federal law mandates that school districts provide special education services to students with disabilities–physical, emotional or developmental. But outside the public’s view, the state of Texas has decided that fewer students should get those services. It pressured school districts to meet an artificial benchmark of 8.5 percent, a rate far below that of any state, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation.

The article, by Brian M. Rosenthal, documents how “unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids” out of special education.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” one former teacher told Rosenthal. “It was all a numbers game.”

In a related piece, Rosenthal deconstructs the various excuses provided to justify the reduction in students receiving special education services. There’s no evidence, for instance, that fewer Texas babies are being born with disabilities; in fact, statistics suggest the reverse is true. He also debunks efforts to credit innovative new teaching techniques for the reduction.

In response to the Chronicle’s reporting, the U.S. Department of Education said it is looking into the matter, and the Texas Education Agency also has promised a detailed review.

We talked to Rosenthal about the genesis of the story and what he found. Some highlights, edited for length and clarity:

One thing I think our listeners will be interested in is how you found out about this story.

Actually, it was from an advocate. This particular advocate actually was confused about the fact that Texas had the lowest percentage of students receiving special ed services by far of any state in the country. This advocate didn’t actually even know about the 8.5 percent, he just thought that we should be looking into this mystery of why Texas serves so few children with disabilities. We started looking into it and in talking with other advocates and people working in schools, we found out about this unannounced 8.5 percent target.

Where did these students go? So if they existed before, and one would presume they exist now, where are they getting educated?

Most of them, it appears, are in schools in general education classrooms and simply not receiving these services that they are entitled to. We’ve heard from some parents that a lot of these children, from some parents and advocates, that a lot of these children have actually been pulled out of public schools when parents were unable to obtain services they decided to homeschool their child or pay to put them in private school. So there were certainly cases like that but it appears as if most of these children are just in regular schools and just not receiving the services that they could be.

How did nobody know about this?

[Many school officials] said that they were told by the TEA, the Texas Education Agency, that this was a policy that was mandated by the federal government or at the very least, backed by research. Turns out neither of those things are true. I think school officials kind of accepted it as reality. They didn’t realize that it was arbitrary and originated from the TEA itself.

After your story ran, it seems that you received quite a bit of feedback from parents who had children with special needs and who had tried to get services. What did they tell you?

I received over 400 to 500 emails from parents and they told us the exact story that we wrote about in our article: about children being diagnosed with a disability and trying to get help from the school and being unable to do so. The line we heard the most was, “We could not figure out why the schools were so reluctant to help us until we read this article and heard about this policy, and suddenly it all makes sense about why schools would, without explanation, not provide these services.”

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Rosenthal’s story, “Denied: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education.”

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