September 19, 2016 9:47 AM   Subscribe

How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education.

"Walker knew the law was on her side. Since 1975, Congress has required public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability. But what she didn't know is that in Texas, unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids like Roanin out of special education."

Since 2004, Texas school districts have been keeping special ed enrollment limited to (a seemingly arbitrarily chosen) 8.5% cap. Children of color, to nobody's surprise, are disproportionately affected. Parents, who already need to seek out specialized and often costly treatments and services, are pressured to pay for private schools or educate their children at home. Is it time to put some teeth back into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?
posted by vverse23 (35 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Their efforts ... 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.

Smaller government!

(I snark because anything else would raise my blood pressure to unacceptable levels; and really, what's left to say?)
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:54 AM on September 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

Special education rates have fallen to the lowest levels in big cities, where the needs are greatest. Houston ISD and Dallas ISD provide special ed services to just 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of students, respectively. By comparison, about 19 percent of kids in New York City get services. 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.

Convenient, because those people live in big cities.
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:58 AM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Students who don’t speak English at home have been hurt the most. Those children currently make up 17.9 percent of all students in Texas but only 15.4 percent of those in special education.

What a huge, awful non-surprise.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:59 AM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had no idea about this cap, but it explains a lot about the seemingly arbitrary nature of who is labelled special ed on my (Texas High School) roster.
posted by lownote at 10:11 AM on September 19, 2016

The 8.5% number is interesting to me, because here in DC a court has ruled (a couple of times, the case is complicated) that DC should be serving a minimum of 8.5% of preschoolers in order to show that it's complying with its obligation to find children with disabilities. There was good evidence that the actual number (of preschoolers only not in all grades) was closer to 12%. This feel ripe for a class action suit; lots of places don't have much in the way of a special education bar, but parts of Texas do, I believe.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:16 AM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Between this and the crisis pregnancy link immediately before this one, I got to ask:

What the fuck, Texas?
posted by MrGuilt at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

If I weren't so cynical, I would be amazed.

"falls within the Texas state acceptable range of 0%-8.5%."

Scary quote--does she wish it were closer to that minimum rate?

You look at the biggest drops--mental illness, orthopedic impairment, developmental delays--it seems like there must be some serious evidence of those kids/families being encourage to drop out, etc. (I didn't look at all the docs...)

In Marlin ISD, near Temple, for example, district leaders promised the state in a Corrective Action Plan that they would reduce their special ed numbers by creating a brochure telling parents about assistance available outside of special ed.

OOPS. First rule of conspiracies is never put that shit in writing.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:25 AM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

How do these people face themselves in the mirror in the morning? I mean, Occam's Razor would suggest that they don't have reflections, but how do you even drag yourself out of bed in the morning when your day's agenda looks like "sentence disabled children to a lifetime of misery in exchange for saving the oil barons a few bucks on their state taxes"?
posted by Mayor West at 10:30 AM on September 19, 2016 [38 favorites]

The article is good, by the way, at calling out the specific tactics used to deny testing and eligibility to students, and they're all really familiar to me from my work. Lying to parents about having to pay for testing, endless rounds of RTI, blaming parents for not doing enough at home. Throw up enough barriers and eventually people give up, even though that testing should be done within 60 school days in Texas, including getting written consent from the parents (assuming I understand what I'm reading, not my state).

It's all bullshit and it's all illegal, but it's sadly typical in my experience AND it disproportionately impacts people who are already disadvantaged. If my daughter is struggling and I ask for testing, I'm* an educated person from a middle class background with all the tools to go find out what my rights are. I've got time and resources to do it. If I spoke limited English, had a learning or intellectual disability myself, or was working so much that I didn't have the time? I might not be able to do that.

*Well, theoretical me who is not a lawyer who does this for living. Assume I don't already know my rights.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2016 [14 favorites]

> It's all bullshit and it's all illegal, but it's sadly typical in my experience AND it disproportionately impacts people who are already disadvantaged.

Yeah, exactly. I have a son with an IEP, and when we need anything from the school district, it's two concerned parents showing up to talk to the principal - highly educated, affluent, "reasonable" parents of a happy, cheerful, engaged kid with severe and obvious disabilities. And even so, it's a struggle to get everything to work out. For example, "Yes, you're entitled to that service, and we agree, but we don't have the staffing right now, and we're trying to hire someone."

At every step, I'm painfully aware of the fact that other families that don't present as well, or other kids with more challenging behavior, for example, are probably not getting the kind of treatment we get. And that's with a school district that is committed to the idea of inclusive education.

To read that the entire state of Texas set out to deliberately - deliberately - deny services to its most vulnerable population? It is breathtaking in its cynicism.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:47 AM on September 19, 2016 [28 favorites]

A tiny bit of good news--following this article, Texas announced it was reviewing special ed policies. Maybe we'll see a positive change in the near future.

Yay, journalism! Stuff like this makes me even happier about subscribing the the Houston Chronicle and sending them some of my money.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:55 AM on September 19, 2016 [10 favorites]

There's no money for providing many with the special ed services they need and are entitled to by law, but there is magically enough money for this.
posted by dr_dank at 10:56 AM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm a Regional Sales Manager for a technology manufacturer. I'm based in Orange County, but am frequently trying to convince my wife that we should consider moving out of state, since my salary stays the same wherever we live but the money would go a lot further if we lived somewhere that wasn't one of the most expensive places in the country. Texas is a state I've always kept open as a possibility, especially after having visited a new salesperson at his home recently to do some training and saw that you could fit about 3 of my houses into one of his and pay about 100K less for it than I did for mine.

Alas, my son is autistic and has been on an IEP since preschool. I'll take the higher mortgage for a school district that doesn't actively try to ruin his life.
posted by The Gooch at 11:24 AM on September 19, 2016 [28 favorites]

From a link in the original article detailing the response to the investigation:

They said state-by-state comparisons were inappropriate and attributed the state's dramatic declines in special education enrollments to new teaching techniques that have lowered the number of children with "learning disabilities," such as dyslexia.

I'm sure the rest of the world would like to know about these "new teaching techniques" that have somehow "cured" these kids...
posted by kuanes at 11:28 AM on September 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

My son has Down Syndrome, and if I had any idea his state and school were actively collaborating to sabotage his future. Well. That line from Conan pretty well sums it up. If I believed in hell, these folks would be going there.
posted by triage_lazarus at 12:19 PM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm on the board of a parent advisory council for special education in MA. We have a 20-25% special needs population between IEPs and 504 plans. I bring crap like a student not getting services per the established service grid or an IEP meeting held without a parent to our district liaison, and she busts butts over it. And allegedly we live in one of "the worst" districts in MA. But our kids are a lot better served in this "worst" district than kids even in the best of Texas districts, it seems.

But seriously, if you're in MA and you're dealing with this stuff and it's not going well, MeMail me and I'll do my best to track down your district group, or you could contact the Federation for Children with Special Needs or Mass Advocates for Children for some free assistance.
posted by zizzle at 12:22 PM on September 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

Incubators of Democracy.
Of course, any farmer will tell you not all eggs hatch healthy, viable chicks.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

@zizzle - No, the best districts in Texas are all-white, all wealthy, so there is less need for special ed.
posted by tippiedog at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2016

As they are in Mass.....but I wouldn't say that means "less need."
posted by zizzle at 12:45 PM on September 19, 2016

Special Education services should be provided in all schools to meet the needs of the student who need special education. Income and insurance coverage are irrelevant when it comes to district coverage of services.

If parents can afford additional services outside of the school setting, then it is a matter of lucky accident to the child in that family. At least in MA for some diagnoses, MassHealth will pick up the tab for children with special needs regardless of income level as well (this is not for as many diagnoses as it should be).

A lot of trouble with special education in general is that Free and Appropriate does not mean Best Possible educational opportunities. Some times clashes between parents and school districts happen because the district has met its obligation and the parents still need more. This is where wrap around services become important, and there is some substantial lack there everywhere, especially in the severe needs populations.

That said, we all know how reality works and the rich in all circumstances do substantially better than the poor. But all districts should be fully supplying special education services to its students.
posted by zizzle at 12:50 PM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

RedOrGreen, you are spot on. I became aware in Kindergarten that something was up with my son's reading, and brought it to the teacher's and school's attention. The principal basically told me a) "boys are slower readers than girls", b) "he's totally fine, I've watched him myself and there's no issue", and c) "not all of your children are going to be as academically talented as your [gifted] daughters; your expectations are too high". We ended up having to pay $4K out of pocket to have him tested by a neuropsychologist, who diagnosed him with dyslexia and ADHD. When we presented that to the principal, he told us "well, anyone can say anything they want". He reluctantly agreed to a 504 plan for 1st grade and it was complete crap - no additional reading resources or help whatsoever. So we had to hire an advocate just to get them to agree to do an IEP for my son, who scores in the 99th percentile for verbal intelligence but in the 4th percentile for reading fluency and CLEARLY has a reading learning disability (honestly, it could not be any more obvious).

My son had a fantastic 1st grade teacher who made it her mission to help him. She has a child with learning difficulties herself and knows what it means. Like in this article, the principal actually told her she had to stop recommending/asking for resources for her special needs kids. She is no longer allowed to tell her parents that their kids need help. And if they ask, she has to refer them directly to the principal. This is just one example. We've had great teachers but awful school administrators, and this has been the experience of the majority of our friends with special needs kids.

To say that it has been pulling teeth is an understatement. And just like RedOr Green said, this is with two highly educated, engaged, not-poor, English-speaking parents, and in a New England school district. My heart aches for all the kids whose parents are not able to spend the $6K we spent just to get him a goddamn IEP, or who can't speak the language well enough to convey their concerns, or who can't take the time off work to attend every single PPT (always scheduled smack in the middle of the workday) without fear of losing their jobs, or who don't have the computer/language/research fluency to research, read and learn about what their children need so that they can knowledgeably advocate for them.

Just typing all this out is making steam come out of my ears.
posted by widdershins at 1:28 PM on September 19, 2016 [24 favorites]

These stories make my heart hurt. First IEP meeting I walked into, I was prepared for a fight. I had my fists ready to go and brass knuckles if I needed them and the IEP the district had laid out was everything we needed and more handed over on a silver platter with silver pen to sign with. I had so much unused pent up energy from not having to fight, I didn't know what to do myself. So I said it should be this easy for everyone, and that's why I'm on the board. My experience should be standard, not unusual.
posted by zizzle at 1:39 PM on September 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

Jocelyn Baty requested an evaluation from Houston ISD in May 2014. The district received the written request, school records show. But despite the law, it never responded, even after Baty's daughter had to repeat second grade and third grade.

"I don't understand why they won't help," said Baty, who lives in a southeast Houston housing project.

HISD officials declined comment on the case but attributed reductions in the district’s special education enrollment to improved instruction.”

The instruction's so good your kids will want to repeat it, year after year!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:18 PM on September 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I taught at a small rural Texas school and I can confidently say the problem is funding. At my school they were willing to hand out 504's and IEP's but there just weren't really any resources. There was one special ed teacher, for the whole district, and I'm sure she did her best but she just didn't have much to work with.

Texas school funding is horrific, since it is tied to local property taxes, you live in a rich district and you can easily find help, you live in a poor district and you get jack shit because there's no money.

On average teachers want to help, but since resources are so scarce an IEP or 504 more often than not just translates into "this student will pass virtually no matter what", not actually any additional helpful teaching.

Unless and until Texans are wiling to pay more for education, and especially to pay more equitably for education, the problem will remain.
posted by sotonohito at 2:27 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Why are people so terrible. Not even accidentally terrible, but deliberately terrible.
posted by rtha at 3:05 PM on September 19, 2016 [13 favorites]

The fancy athletics programs are not proof that Texas is wasting their education dollars.

As sotonohito points out, educational funding is tied directly to the property tax values. The oil baron isn't in HISD. And unfortunately, the state constitution makes it illegal to take the excess from one school district, and give it to another school district.

I work in tax, and I regularly see appellate courts striking down whatever new funding strategy the state tries to put in place.

If Texas had the political will, it could change the constitution and provide equitable funding. So I'm not exonerating Texas. But the institutions in place require a lot more effort to fix than virtually any other state needs to change education policy.
posted by politikitty at 3:10 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Iirc, we used to have a general fund, where all districts paid, and then the money was divided, but the rich assholes in places like Plano and similar high value property districts called it Robin Hood funding, and as soon as the republicans got their hands around the throat of government, that disappeared.

Our gifted and talented programs are no better funded, in our district, all the elementary schools share one teacher, and g&t is a one hour pullout a few times a month. And this is in a district where I pay $3,000 per hundred thousand value, so about 7k annually in just school tax.

But we sure as fuck have espn ready football stadium. My son's school had books that talked about how we would someday go to the moon, half the kids are migrant families in need of significant help, the area is growing so fast we're building new schools every year, but the vast amount of the taxes are paying down the bonds for football.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 3:42 PM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is just astonishing. As others have noted, districts should generally be in the 20 to 25% range for special ed. (Lower in rich suburban areas, higher in poor urban areas -- for example, higher lead exposure rates and more poverty and nutrition issues in cities tend to slightly increase special ed rates.) 8.5% is mind-boggling. Like, the Department of Ed should have noticed years ago boggling.

In Texas's slight defense, and while every state is slightly different, typically capital improvements (buildings) are levied separately from educational costs (teachers, special ed, etc.), and money can't be moved from capital improvements to educational costs. Generally the idea is to protect against the opposite problem -- districts levy a tax to renovate a building or pay for a new one, and the money gets grabbed for ongoing expenses and kids end up breathing asbestos -- or to allow the state to fund high-cost capital improvements in districts that can't afford them without the risk that building money will be diverted into salaries. (Also you can bond capital improvements but you can't generally bond ongoing expenses.) But being able to pass a bond issue or a tax increase for a huge football stadium does not at all translate into being able to pass a tax increase for teacher salaries or special ed.

(Also the federal ARRA -- the stimulus package -- handed out a LOT of money for capital improvements and technology purchases. Literally if you can bolt it to the wall it can count as a capital improvement, so we had all these schools with renovated stadia and modern smartboards and iPad carts, and 40-student classes because we couldn't afford teachers. The ARRA gave money to schools sort-of incidentally as part of its goal to employ construction trade workers, so a lot of schools dealt with a lot of "Why are you doing non-essential renovations while not hiring more teachers?" Well, the money is only for the one thing. A lot of schools spent it on non-essentials because school maintenance rules are pretty strict so most were at least up-to-code.)

That said there's an obvious problem in the school code when schools can manage to build college-level stadia and can't afford special ed.

While in general I found that kids and parents were very accepting and supportive of special ed (inclusion works!), there are really shocking pockets of anti-special-ed feeling, including among administrators. We had an utterly lionized 30-year superintendent who managed the district right before white flight got going hardcore and decimated the district tax base, who constantly was getting up at community forums and insisting we wouldn't have budget problems if we stopped spending so much on special ed, because "in my day it didn't cost so much, those kids just stayed home." THANKS OLD DUDE YOU ROCK. /sarcasm
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:36 PM on September 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

The history is a bit more murky.

In 1993, the Texas Supreme Court found that the local school districts were not able to raise property tax rates to a sufficient level to guarantee an adequate level of funding for poor districts. The legislature passed the 'Robin Hood' tax in response.

In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court found that the state mandated amounts were so high, they acted as a state ad valorem tax, which is unconstitutional.

This is a function of property values being so low in Texas. Particularly in rural areas.

The school districts sued to block this change, in an effort to gain the necessary funding that is needed on a state-wide basis, because the school districts aren't able to provide it. But in May, the Supreme Court once again decided that state co-ordinated funding was unconstitutional.

The Republicans are certainly not upset about this turn of events. And the Supreme Court justices are elected partisan officials. But this situation is being driven by the judicial branch, rather than the executive or legislative branch.
posted by politikitty at 4:41 PM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've been silently seething about this article since I first read it. While my wife and I have our quibbles about our son's IEP and schooling, the inescapable fact is that we need to be grateful that he and his fellow elementary students have a supportive home room teacher, special ed teacher, speech therapist and at least three aides throughout the school day. I have no idea what this costs the district, but when I hang out with him and his peers at school, I'm filled with optimism that they're going to make it through the challenges of our schooling system and be able to live their lives.

It just galls me to no end when I hear how children with disabilities are cast out of our public education system. Especially now. We've learned so much about how people learn, how different people learn differently, all the advantages that kids gain just being in a positive learning environment, how pretty much everyone across the board benefits from full inclusion. How proving the most vulnerable and at-risk kids with decent educations results in long term reductions in health care expenses, mental health treatment, prison and correctional services, etc.

It seems apparent that capping spec ed enrollment at 8.5% is a fiscal decision. But isn't there someone working on the budget who can extend the trend lines out a few decades? I'm not even talking about the myriad moral, ethical, legal reasons for providing our kids with the education that they are entitled to. They have an opportunity to create taxpayers. I feel dirty reducing this issue to dollars, but why do they not see this?
posted by vverse23 at 6:03 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I sat in an IEP meeting TODAY after school to discuss a student who is actually doing quite well, but who struggles in English skills, particularly reading. We added supports formally to the IEP because he was already (accidentally) getting them and they were working, so we figured it we'd write it in.

I came from a school where a student walked into the (full-time) school psychologist's office (well, one of the two psychologists we had at the school) and asked to be tested for dyslexia and ADHD. She was tested and given a temporary 504 within two weeks. Now, she has followed up with a doctor and is medicated, has an IEP and doing a whole hell of a lot better.

The thought that both of these students would have just been SOL if we were magically transported to Texas is heartbreaking. The whole article was heartbreaking.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:54 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

If we want to turn over state social services to public schools then do it right and fund it. under the guise of being only a public school we are infact a health center, day care, psychiatric, employment services center. oh, and we teach your kids to read and shit...
posted by judson at 10:34 AM on September 20, 2016

I'm a veteran special ed teacher.

How do these people face themselves in the mirror in the morning?

Behind closed doors these people say, "The world will always need janitors." I've heard many high-level education officials say that.

That's how these monsters face themselves and how they sleep at night.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:01 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Feds order Texas to comply with special ed laws

The U.S. Department of Education gave the officials a month to either provide the evidence or outline a plan to end so-called "PBMAS Indicator 10," which penalizes school districts that give specialized education to more than 8.5 percent of students.

"It appears that the State's approach to monitoring local educational agency compliance under the PBMAS Indicator 10 may be resulting in districts' failure to identify and evaluate all students suspected of having a disability and who need special education," Sue Swenson, the department's acting assistant secretary for special education, wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency.

"Depending on TEA's response," Swenson wrote, the federal government "will determine whether additional monitoring activities or other administrative enforcement or corrective actions are necessary."

posted by zabuni at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

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