A recent investigative report from the Houston Chronicle alleges that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has systematically lowered the number of students granted special education status in the state since 2004. Using reports from former teachers and administrators, as well as the introduction of a measuring tool for special education populations in school districts in 2004, the report states that the TEA set 8.5 percent of the student population as the maximum for special education populations in Texas.
The TEA denies that there was pressure to deny students who should qualify for special education status the benefits that could be derived. What is clear is that Texas has a substantially smaller percentage of special education students than the national average — and in fact has the smallest percentage of all of the states. The national average is 13 percent as of the 2013-14 school year. Texas, came in at 8.6 percent, one of only two states that had a percentage in the single digits. This was not always the case, as in 2000 the national average was 13.3 percent, and Texas – while still one of the lower states – had a percentage of 12.1.
There are several potential reasons for the difference. One given by the TEA was that the new policy was a reaction to overclassification of students as special education. Another was that the numbers were decreasing because of successful efforts to rehabilitate students who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. These examples may contribute to the overall decrease, but current and former school administrators claim that they were given to understand that the number was a goal and that they were to drop the populations to that number as soon as possible. Some districts have done so by funneling students into alternative programs such as the use of Section 504 programming, which has doubled in size since the introduction of the 8.5 percent target. The program is much less expensive and consists in some cases of merely moving the chairs of specific students, or giving them longer time frames for exams. Many parents have taken their challenged students out of public schools in favor of private schools and home-schooling.
What is certain is that many parents do not feel that the needs of their child are being met by the school districts. Taking their child out of public schools means that they either have to incur the cost of a private education or lose the income of one parent in order to home-school. Low-income or single-parent families may not have any options if their student is not receiving assistance in a public school.
There will be further research into the classification of special education students in Texas, but there are remedies that should be made available to struggling parents and students. School choice would allow parents to have more options, including for single-parent and low-income families. An Education Savings Account (ESA) is one method of choice that gives decision-making power to the parent. Parents can decide whether they want to put their child into a private school with the money, whether they want to home-school, use a charter school program or follow an online program. They can use the money on therapy, counseling, or technology necessary for their student’s educational needs. Funds not used in one year roll over to the next and can even be used for college.
We will learn more about what has happened in Texas with special education students as time goes on. What is clear right now is that many parents are not pleased with the educational supports given to their children. ESAs allow these parents the freedom to find services that are right for their child — immediately. Instead of being requesting changes year after year without results, the parents are able to be intelligent consumers and find the programs that are best for their child.
Schools shouldn’t deny children services, — and parents should not be required to stand by. Parents should have options to enable every child to reach his or her full potential today.
Muldrow is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.