This story was originally published by The Washington Post, and can be found here. Photo: iStock

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle has revealed that unelected state officials in Texas “arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services” more than a decade ago and then began auditing school districts that did not comply.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, 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, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

The newspaper’s reporter, Brian Rosenthal, found that state officials set a cap of 8.5 percent of students who should receive special-education services, far lower than the national averageAccording to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, the overall percentage of those being served in programs for students with disabilities was 12.9 percent in 2012-13, the most recent year for which statistics are available, down 13.8 percent in 2004-05. In 2015, the 8.5 percent was reached for the first time, dropping from 12 percent a dozen years ago, the newspaper reported. It said:

If Texas provided services at the same rate as the rest of the U.S., 250,000 more kids would be getting critical services such as therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring.

In its response to the Chronicle, the Texas Education Agency denied that it had set 8.5 percent as a mandated goal and instead described it as an “indicator.” It also said that it did not punish districts that did not comply. Still, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency would conduct a detailed review of the special-education program in the state, and House Speaker Joe Straus (R) said he would work with the agency to address this issue.

According to the Chronicle, Texas is the only state that has limited the percentage of students to whom it will provide special-education services in this manner.

The newspaper reported that districts that provided more than 8.5 percent of students with special-education services were asked to file “corrective action” plans for how they were going to lower their special-education populations.

The Chronicle also found that TEA officials arbitrarily established the 8.5 percent standard in the face of a $1 billion budget cut without the benefit of any research on its impact or on how deeply to reduce special education. The national average for students receiving special education is about 13 percent.

Ironically, the 8.5 percent cap was set in 2004, the same year that Congress updated the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed to ensure that all children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free and appropriate public education.

Texas, however, is hardly the only state that has mismanaged its special-education program.

For example, the Connecticut State Department of Education said last month that the two largest school districts in the state — Hartford and Bridgeport — were not meeting federal and state laws in regard to providing students with disabilities an appropriate education, according to the CT Monitor.

The Iowa Department of Education recently cited more than 100 incidents of noncompliance with federal laws and regulations in the Iowa City school district’s special-education program, according to the Gazette.

Michigan Radio just published a story saying that special-education funding in the state is so complicated that nobody can say categorically how much it costs to educate a special-education student:

Figuring out all the different pots of money that go into paying for special education is complicated, but you know what’s even more complicated? Figuring out how much special education in Michigan actually costs. And if we don’t know that, we don’t know whether we’re spending too much or too little on special ed.

It’s so complicated even the people who specialize in school finance can’t figure it out.

Forty-one years after IDEA was first passed, special-education programs nationwide remain in serious need of proper funding and reform. This is from a 2015 post on the Rethink blog, an evidence-based platform for special educators:

Yet despite the integral role the law has played in granting students with special needs access to education and inclusion opportunities, it remains flawed and underfunded. Red tape and complicated financial provisions continue to make it difficult for school districts to efficiently and effectively serve students with disabilities while complying with the law’s rules and regulations. Furthermore, in part due to some of these problems, special education teachers are leaving the profession in droves, making qualified teachers harder and harder to come by….

The challenges special education teachers face are enormous, and addressing these challenges can be equally as daunting. But if IDEA is to accomplish what it set out to accomplish 40 years ago–to ensure that all students have access to a free and appropriate public education–having high quality teachers to teach our special education students is a non-negotiable. Reauthorization of IDEA is now 6 years overdue. As policymakers rethink the law’s provisions, considering how IDEA is impacting teacher satisfaction and teacher quality should be a top concern. For now, districts must look at creative ways to address these challenges with the tools and resources available at their disposal.

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