This story was originally published by Bloomberg, written by John O’Neil and can be found here. Photographer: Getty Images/iStockphoto


Texas’s 5.4 million students are returning to school amid the usual scramble for textbooks, lockers and desks. The state is also facing a huge problem of its own creation: how to find, evaluate and properly teach as many as 200,000 students wrongly denied special education or overlooked as it sought to limit spending for the nation’s fastest-growing school population.

And then there’s the question of how Texas, under orders from the U.S. government, will pay for it all.

The federal mandate, intended to make up for a de facto cap put in place by the Texas Education Agency in 2004, may amount to the biggest single expansion of special education services ever. For more than a decade, local school districts were pressured to turn away students in need. Now that must be undone.

The federal order is both an opportunity to improve the life prospects of young people with disabilities and a challenge to the low-tax, high-growth, small-government model Texas has pursued while under Republican control. The state and local districts now confront spending increases projected to reach more than $1.5 billion a year.

Nationwide, schools are struggling to provide special education services in the face of tight budgets, heightened legal scrutiny and shortages of qualified teachers, psychologists and therapists. Texas needs all of those experts to climb out of its hole, plus the help of parents whose trust in their schools has been deeply eroded.

Last year, Heather Beliveaux thought she was done fighting Houston school officials after her daughter was finally deemed eligible for special education. The year before, the girl, Sophia Salehi, had been denied services for visual impairment despite being legally blind.

But Beliveaux found herself again working with a special education lawyer. The new battle wasn’t over whether Sophia, 11, should get help, but whether she could get that help without having to transfer out of a school where she’d begun to thrive.

“I thought the big thing was to get her eligible,”  Beliveaux said. “I thought once that was settled, they’d have to step up.”

It’s been almost two years since the Houston Chronicle revealed that the percentage of students in Texas special education classes had fallen by roughly a third since the TEA set enrollment targets in 2004. Before then, the special education share in Texas was 11.8 percent of all students, not far below the national average. Over the next decade, the Texas figure fell to 8.6 percent, while enrollment nationwide remained largely unchanged.

While the TEA denied that the target had been meant as a cap, the U.S. Department of Education concluded in January that it had functioned as one. According to the report, administrators and teachers told federal investigators they’d felt pressured to reduce special education enrollment, with one superintendent saying that “he ‘leans on the administrators’ if the numbers are too high because the school board ‘leans on him.’”

U.S. officials ruled that both the state and local districts in Texas had violated the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, a federal law that requires all students who qualify receive special education services.

Since IDEA’s passage in 1975, educational opportunities afforded American children with conditions including autism, dyslexia and cerebral palsy have changed profoundly. Rather than being isolated, more than 60 percent of them spend over 80 percent of their time in general-education classrooms, receiving specialized assistance while integrated into the broader school environment.

Problems remain, of course—not least of which is the temptation among state governments to cut education funding. The U.S. Department of Education’s latest annual review found that 29 states and the District of Columbia fell short of meeting their special education obligations in the 2016-17 school year. But what happened in Texas falls into an entirely different category.

Lindsay Jones, the chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center on Learning Disabilities, or NCLD, called the move to deprive vulnerable students of necessary services “absolutely the largest-scale violation” of the law since its passage in 1975.

By one TEA estimate, the level of enrollment before 2004 indicates that as many as 200,000 students who should be getting special education services are not. Additionally, by one estimate more than 150,000 students who have since left may have gone unserved.

As the 2018-19 school year starts, the TEA is under orders from Washington to ensure that districts find, evaluate and provide services to eligible students currently enrolled, and offer compensatory services to those who missed out. State officials and disability rights advocates say that’s going to require unorthodox searches, including looking for young adults in mental hospitals and correctional facilities, two populations studies have shown to have higher-than-average rates of undiagnosed learning disabilities.

After its initial resistance, TEA officials now speak of the “opportunity” the crisis has handed them for sweeping improvements—but they’re frank about the challenge. Penny Schwinn, the TEA’s deputy commissioner for academics, said, “It’s difficult to fathom the true scale of what we’re talking about.” The TEA now projects that special education enrollment will rise over the next few years to 12.2 percent, still below the national average but higher than before the cap was put in place.

The TEA has drawn up a plan for helping districts with teacher training and student evaluation, as well as beefing up its own monitoring capacities—all at a cost of $211 million over five years (the plan is still under federal review). Even so, Commissioner Mike Morath told the legislature that the “heavy lifting” of paying for an expected spike in evaluation requests will fall on districts.

Texas reimburses districts for some of the extra costs of special education through a complicated formula based on the severity of a student’s disability. The TEA told a legislative panel earlier this month that the expected rise in enrollment will likely require more than $3.2 billion in additional state aid over the next three school years and more than $1.5 billion every year after that. Local officials have long complained that the state reimbursement falls short of actual special education costs. Because both local special education spending and state reimbursement are mandatory under federal law, districts and the state will probably face a choice of raising taxes or cutting other school spending.

Kristin McGuire, the director of governmental relations for the Texas Council for Administrators of Special Education, said the plan developed by the TEA has “very good goals and expectations.”  She just has one question: “How are we going to get it all done?”

Texas is by no means alone. “Every state in the nation reports shortages of special education teachers, psychologists and counselors,” Jones of the NCLD said. “Texas is facing—in an exacerbated way, and of its own doing—a similar but more difficult situation.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University and a member of California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said Texas already has “a huge shortage,” noting that last year 29 percent of Texas’s special education teachers weren’t even certified in the field. Her group estimated that meeting the expansion of the special education student population could require 10,000 additional teachers. Currently, Texas schools are preparing just under 2,500 such teachers per year.

The state hasn’t even returned to staffing levels that existed before a deep round of budget cuts in 2011, said Chandra Villanueva, an analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

Sonja Kerr, the lawyer representing Sophia Salehi, is skeptical change will come. She’s continued to receive calls from parents complaining schools are wrongly denying services to their children, claiming the child’s disability doesn’t qualify them for special education—something that was commonplace during the cap era.

Cheryl Fries, an Austin parent and a co-founder of Texans for Special Education Reform, said “repairing the culture of the schools” will be an enormous challenge. “To maintain that cap, the whole system became infected with a toxicity of bad practices,” said Fries. “An entire generation of teachers has been mistrained.”

Photographer: PhotoAlto/Alamy

Special education covers a wide range of needs, including medical and emotional disorders. Since IDEA and the subsequent inclusion of special needs children with other students, there has been an increase in “team teaching,” where a general education and a special education teacher share duties in class. Also gaining widespread use is social-skills training, which focuses on autistic children but is often provided to a wider range of students. Children with greater needs may have individual aides assigned to them, or they may leave the classroom for “pullout”’ sessions of speech or occupational therapy, or for more intensive sessions in math or reading. Still other students may attend specialized schools.

Texas was a leader in providing services to dyslexic students in the 1980s, creating one of the first statewide programs. But while those students are supposed to be eligible for special education services, in Texas the state’s official dyslexia handbook presented it as an either-or situation. Many parents and advocates said that after the TEA target was established, districts funneled children who needed more extensive services into the dyslexia programs as a way of staying under the cap.

Robbi Cooper, a parent who leads the Texas chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, a nationwide advocacy group, said putting lagging readers into the state dyslexia program instead of special education meant that families were deprived of the right to help shape their child’s treatment afforded under IDEA. “That’s just wrong,” she said.

In June, the TEA sent a letter reversing the position taken in the handbook and emphasizing that any child who qualifies for special education should get it, whether or not they were in the dyslexia program. McGuire said administrators expect that dyslexia may be the biggest area of conflict as districts respond to parental requests.

In the finger-pointing that followed the federal report, the Texas Education Alliance, a group representing large districts, blamed the 8.5 percent target on a 2004 report by a legislative committee that suggested a cap could be a way of holding down special education spending.

Asked what the purpose of the target had been, Thomas Ratliff, a former member of the state board of education, echoed a common response when he said “saving money is what they had in mind.”

The TEA plans to ask for a temporary increase in its budget when the legislature meets in January. But ultimately, how the increased special education spending is divided between the state and local districts, which rely on property taxes, is a key question facing a commission appointed to revise the school funding formula.

At a meeting this spring, the panel’s chairman, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, asked members if the state should be spending education dollars “on the brightest kids or the slow learners?” He later apologized for the comment.

Thomas Ratliff
Photographer: Eric Gay/AP

Ratliff said that while the state’s strong economic growth means revenue estimates have been raised, much of that money “is already spoken for.” Something, he said, has to give.

“I think you can only lower the tax burden so much and maintain civil society,” he said. “Everybody loves to talk about jobs and growth and the Texas miracle, but at some point there has to be a fundamental review of our tax structure.”

Perhaps to underscore the fact that special education spending isn’t just another budget item, the TEA’s corrective action plan states in its introduction that Texas has a responsibility “legally and morally” to provide needed services.

Fries and other advocates applauded the language. Still, she said her group’s biggest concern is that “the current response places all of the burden on districts.”

“It’s like, ‘Hey, schools, guess what? You have to provide evaluations and services and compensatory services, and there’s no money and we’ve already been cutting your money for years, so good luck,’” Fries said. Like many other parents, she worries that the situation “sets up children with disabilities for blowback from the general education community if schools feel like they have to cut other programs.”

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