Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

special education

The state of special education at HISD

Still a lot of work to be done.

Houston ISD’s quality of special education services remains in “grave” shape due to inadequate staffing, confusion among employees and a lack of accountability, according to a district-appointed committee reviewing the quality of programs provided to students with disabilities.

In a draft report expected to be presented to HISD trustees Thursday, members of the district’s Special Education Ad-Hoc Committee said the district needs to better address its many shortcomings and school board members should provide more oversight of efforts to improve delivery of special education services. The committee, comprised of district leaders, special education experts and HISD parents, has been meeting since February 2017, in response to a Houston Chronicle investigation that found a years-long pattern of Texas school districts — including HISD — denying access to special education services.

The committee’s 11-page draft report, which is expected to undergo some revisions before Thursday, echoes many of the findings documented earlier this year in a third-party review by American Institutes of Research. The nonprofit found HISD needed more staff members dedicated to special education, better clarity about delivering services to students and clearer systems for carrying out essential programs for students with disabilities, among other areas of improvement.

The committee is expected to issue several recommendations to HISD’s nine-member school board. They include ordering HISD administrators to issue a detailed response to the American Institutes of Research report and mandating regular reports to trustees about the district’s plans for improving special education services.

“It’s going to take years of persistence and commitment to special education to get the district to where we want it to be,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who chaired the committee.

[…]

Kara DeRocha, an HISD parent and special education advocate who sat on the committee, said district leaders need a consistent, detailed and well-managed plan to satisfy long-frustrated families.

“The biggest problem in HISD has always been follow-through,” DeRocha said. “There are a lot of great plans that come out, but the devil is in the details and making sure they do what they said they’d do with fidelity.”

See here for all previous blogging on the topic. HISD had embraced the state’s artificial limits on special education in the past, and then-Superintendent Carranza set up the review of the district’s practices last January. The state is also working on a reform plan, but all these things will cost money. I agree with Kara DeRocha that the devil is in the details, but look at the budget appropriations first. It remains to be seen that the Lege will deal with this in an adequate manner.

Who’s to blame for the special education limits

The Lege gets a finger pointed at it.

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

[…]

The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

See here for past blogging on the topic, and here for the Trib story on the federal report. I will note that the Chair of the House Public Education Committee at the time of the 2004 interim report was none other then Kent Grusendorf, a man who was so anti-public education that he was basically the inspiration for (and first real victory won by) the Texas Parent PAC. So yeah, I have no trouble believing this. As to when it might get fixed, that’s a topic for November.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

Senate wrecks school finance bill

It’s what they do.

The Texas Senate has scrapped much of a proposal to revise how the state funds education in place of a plan to create a school voucher program for children with disabilities.

The bill passed the Senate 21-10 at 12:50 a.m. Monday, marking the second time in two months the chamber has approved legislation that would allow parents to use public school dollars to subsidize their child’s tuition at a private school.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and Education Committee chairman sponsoring the bill. “This would empower some of those parents to have some leverage.”

The new language, added on the Senate floor late Sunday night, now includes money for charter school facilities, autism grant funding and programming for special education students transitioning out of school. The changes also reduce the amount of new money into education from about $1.9 billion to about $500 million during a tight budget cycle amid lower-than-expected state revenue.

The changes come to House bill 21, the lower chamber’s flagship proposal to begin a multi-year process of rehabbing the state’s school funding formula after the Texas Supreme Court called the system constitutional but in need of improvement. The House measure deleted outdated pieces of the formula, reduced recapture and added weights to allocate more money per student with dyslexia or learning English as a second language.

The Senate hijacked the bill shortly after it arrived in the upper chamber, adding to the bill a school voucher program, which the House has opposed, throwing the fate of the school finance fix into jeopardy.

Basically, HB21 as we once knew it is dead. The AFL-CIO changed its position on it from Support to Oppose a few days ago as these changes were first being made. At this point, the House should stick to its guns on vouchers and reject the amended bill. The Trib has more.

Senate approves special ed reform bill

Good.

The Texas Senate moved Wednesday to ban state officials from ever again imposing a cap on the percentage of students allowed to receive special education services.

The chamber voted unanimously in favor of Senate Bill 160, putting the legislation just one step away from the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who already has indicated his support of the measure.

That last step, a vote on the floor of the Texas House, is expected to take place soon.

The legislation was filed in response to “Denied,” a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation that exposed the state’s decade-old cap and revealed that it had denied services like tutoring and therapy to tens of thousands of children with disabilities.

As a result of the arbitrary 2004 policy, which the Texas Education Agency enacted while facing a $1.1 billion state budget cut and without notifying lawmakers, federal officials or the public, Texas now provides special education services to the lowest percentage of any state in the country – by far.

Now, with the Senate passage of Senate Bill 160, the state might be able to erase that ugly distinction, according to the proposal’s sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

See here for previous blogging on the topic. The Senate hasn’t done much to commend this session, but this one they got right. Let’s get it passed in the House and signed into law.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.

[…]

The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

Sung and Vilaseca sworn in at HISD

The HISD Board is back at full strength.

Anne Sung

As Anne Sung and Holly Flynn Vilaseca took their oaths of office and became Houston ISD’s newest Board of Education trustees on Thursday, their husbands swaddled their months-old babies in one hand and held holy books in the other.

Sung’s 11-month-old daughter, Sarita, and Flynn Vilaseca’s 13-month-old, Nicolas, hardly made a peep as their mothers became leaders of the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Sung was elected as the District 7 trustee and will replace Harvin Moore, who resigned from the board last summer. Vilaseca was unanimously appointed by the board Monday to fill the District 6 seat vacated by Greg Meyers, who resigned at the board’s December meeting.

Both new members will serve through 2017. Then their seats will be back up for election.

[…]

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Sung and Flynn Vilaseca said top priorities include ensuring equity in terms of the number of talented teachers, funding and facilities across Houston’s campuses. Flynn Vilaseca said she would also like to focus on lobbying the state to abandon “recapture,” which takes money from so-called property-rich districts to assist those with lower property values.

Houston ISD officials have argued that because 75 percent of district students are considered low income, the money it pays to the state for recapture would be better spent locally.

Sung also hopes to make sure the board and district are operating ethically and transparently, particularly in the way it spends money.

Both also plan to focus on improving student achievement, especially among the district’s lowest-performing students.

“We need to bring attention back to doing what’s right for students and preparing them for life after high school,” Sung said. “We need to make sure we align what we’re teaching with what’s happening in the world.”

See here for more on Vilaseca. I’ve heard some chatter that she does plan to run for a full term in November, which will be a race to watch. I look forward to interviewing her down the line. In the meantime, the Board (which elected its officers for the year; Wanda Adams is now Board President) has a lot to deal with, including lobbying the Lege to do something about recapture, dealing with the revelations about special education, continuing the bond-funded construction projects, and so on. Welcome aboard, ladies (*), let’s get to work. The Press has more.

(*) In case you hadn’t noticed (I only just did), with the election of Sung and the selection of Vilaseca, the HISD Board is now comprised of seven women and two men.

“Denied”: HISD and special education

There are problems here as well.

Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Thursday that the Houston Independent School District has decided to conduct a detailed review of the way that it serves students with disabilities.

The effort will include asking “independent, third-party experts to conduct a deep-dive analysis of our special education operation,” Carranza said.

The newly-hired superintendent announced the review in a statement, saying it would be the district’s “first order of business when the new year begins.”

“We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” Carranza wrote. “Together, we will find solutions that serve our children because that is what Houston expects, and that is what Houston’s children deserve.”

The announcement came one day after the Houston Chronicle published a story detailing how Houston ISD has deliberately denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities over the past decade.

Here’s that earlier story. It’s pretty damning.

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent.

For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that HISD achieved its low special education rate by deliberately discouraging and delaying evaluations in pursuit of goals that have clearly denied critical services to thousands of children with disabilities.

Records show the largest school district in Texas enthusiastically embraced a controversial state policy that has driven special education enrollments to the lowest in the United States. In fact, after HISD officials reduced their enrollment rate from 10 percent to the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent target, they set an even more restrictive standard: 8 percent.

To accomplish the objective, HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of “exclusionary factors” that disqualify students from getting services, among other tactics described in district documents, court records and dozens of interviews.

Read the whole thing. This is a travesty, and it needs to be fixed. Whatever it takes, this needs to be fixed.

Here’s your chance to give feedback on special education

The feds are coming to Texas to hear what you have to say about it.

The U.S. Department of Education is sending representatives to tour Texas and take comment from school community members on special education, continuing to look at whether the state is denying services to students with disabilities.

Representatives from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will join Texas Education Agency officials for “listening sessions” in five Texas cities between Dec. 12 and 15.

[…]

“The sessions provide members of the public an opportunity to comment on the timely identification and evaluation of students with disabilities, as well as the delivery of special education and related services to all eligible children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA,” the advisory reads.

The federal department is also collecting comment on a blog for those who cannot attend any of the listening sessions.

Officials from the Texas Education Agency have been planning the listening sessions with the federal government, working with regional Education Service Centers to secure meeting sites for the five stops, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.

“The listening sessions parallel with our ongoing efforts on the state level to continue to get feedback on this important issue,” she wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune. “As a result, TEA will have representatives at each stop.”

See here for previous blogging on this topic. I don’t have anything to add beyond saying that this is a great opportunity to be heard and to make sure there is pressure on the TEA and the Legislature to get this right.

TEA officially backs off special education limits

We’ll see about that.

Facing increasing criticism over its special education enrollment benchmark, the Texas Education Agency this week told schools that they must provide services to all eligible students with disabilities and that they will no longer be penalized for serving too many children.

In a five-page letter, Penny Schwinn, the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics, advised school districts that a federal provision known as “child find” requires them to locate and evaluate all kids who live within their boundaries who might qualify for services such as tutoring, counseling and therapy.

“A school district’s failure to meet the child find requirements is a serious matter,” Schwinn wrote. “Furthermore, the failure to identify a child may entitle the child to compensatory education or tuition reimbursement.”

Schwinn told the districts that the TEA eventually would end the decade-old benchmark that has set 8.5 percent as the ideal rate of special education. And effective immediately, she wrote, exceeding the target would not “adversely affect” district performance levels or determinations about whether districts are audited.

A decade of audit threats related to the target has left Texas with the lowest rate of special education in the country. If the state was at the national average, more than 250,000 more students would be receiving services.

But as in the past, Schwinn also defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply.

“It has been alleged that some school district personnel and others may have interpreted the (benchmark) to mean that districts are required to achieve a special education enrollment rate of no more than 8.5%,” she wrote. “This interpretation is incorrect.”

The letter followed through on a promise to the U.S. Department of Education, which last month ordered the TEA to end the enrollment target and remind schools about the requirement to provide special education services to children with disabilities.

[…]

But some advocates and lawmakers said the TEA’s message was undercut by its refusal to accept responsibility for the benchmark.

“TEA says it understands the complexities of schools differentiating between problems due to disability and other factors,” said Dustin Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas. “In reality, the complexity is deciphering the mixed messages TEA sends schools.”

“We welcome the reminder that schools should evaluate those suspected of needing special education, however TEA is the cause of the problem,” he added, arguing that “TEA has no credibility” because it “keeps trying to sell its preposterous story that the 8.5 percent indicator was not a cap or a goal for the percentage of students receiving special education, while offering no explanation for why they awarded their best performance level to districts that served fewer than 8.5 percent of students.”

See here for the backstory. I agree with Dustin Rynders that we should not just take the TEA’s word for it on this. They have not been been particularly transparent, and there’s no way any of this would be happening if it weren’t for the spotlight that has been shone on them by the Chronicle’s investigation. There’s also the small matter of ensuring adequate funding for all the students who need special ed services, which as we know are not cheap. This does represent progress, but it’s definitely a situation that requires oversight and verification going forward.

It’s bill-filing season

And they’re off.

Today is the first day of early filing in the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate may begin filing the bills that will be discussed when the legislature convenes in January 10, 2017. So how does that work and what does it mean?

For the most part bills are numbered in the order they are filed. However House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 are reserved for the Appropriations Bill (the state’s budget) and the first several bills in each chamber are reserved for the Speaker’s priorities and the Lt. Governor’s priorities, respectively. Last session it was the first 40 bills in the House, so the first bill filed on early filing day was HB 41, and the first 20 bills in the Senate, so the first bill filed was SB 21.

There’s no real particular legislative advantage to filing on the first day. Once the session gets going and bills sent to committees they are typically referred in batches of a couple hundred. The House and Senate will send the few hundred bills filed today to committee in the first couple of days of referral and the dozen or so bills filed tomorrow will follow them the same day or the next. Since the chairs of committees have almost complete discretion about when to schedule bills for hearings, a bill filed today could easily be heard in committee after a bill filed tomorrow or three months from now – or not at all.

So why bother to traipse up to Austin to file a bill the first day?

The bills filed today aren’t an indication of what’s most likely to pass next session, but they are an indication of what will be the major topics of conversation. Today’s bills represent the top priorities for lawmakers – and, since every media outlet that covers the lege will run a “what got filed on the first day of early filing” article they are more so the top priorities of the lawmakers who really know how to capture the media’s attention.

That’s from Daniel Williams’ blog, and he has several other posts devoted to first-day filings. Daniel knows legislative procedures like Scott Hochberg knows school finance, so do yourself a favor and read his blog.

The Trib has a good rundown on what has been filed so far. There are actually a fair number that run the gamut from “not bad” to “really good”, though take heed of Daniel’s advice about how little Day One means. There’s also some demagoguery, and more than a few bills making a repeat attempt at passage, including such things as a statewide ban on texting while driving and a bill to authorize online voter registration. New hot topics include a bill to life the cap on special education enrollment, and a bill to authorize and regulate ride-sharing at the state level. There were more than one of those bills; the one that I’d keep an eye on is SB176 by Sen. Schwertner, who has been talking about this since the Austin rideshare referendum. His press release on the bill, which covers the basics of it, has some bombast over that referendum and a bit of BS about how local regulations of rideshare companies were restricting competition, but the bill itself seems reasonable enough. It’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall for this one, and all things considered this approach seems to be workable. Ask me again after it comes out of committee.

Anyway. There’s plenty more out there, and this is of course just day one. In the end, thousands of bills will be filed, and the vast majority of them will die a quiet death. There will be plenty to keep an eye on between now and sine die. The Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Dallas Transportation, the Current, the Austin Chronicle, the Rivard Report, and Out in SA have more.

“Denied”, continued

Here’s Part 2 of the Chron’s reporting on special education limits.

A few days before school began here in 2007, district administrators called an emergency staff meeting.

The Texas Education Agency had determined that they had too many students in special education, the administrators announced, and they had come up with a plan: Remove as many kids as possible.

The staffers did as they were told, and during that school year, the Laredo Independent School District purged its rolls, discharging nearly a third of its special education students, according to district data. More than 700 children were forced out of special education and moved back into regular education. Only 78 new students entered services.

“We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” said Maricela Gonzalez, an elementary school speech therapist. “We thought it was unfair, but we did it.”

Gonzalez’s account, confirmed by two coworkers and district documents, illustrates how some schools across Texas have ousted children with disabilities from needed services in order to comply with an agency decree that no more than 8.5 percent of students should obtain specialized education. School districts seeking to meet the arbitrary benchmark have not only made services harder to get into but have resorted to removing hundreds and hundreds of kids, the Houston Chronicle has found.

In San Felipe Del Rio CISD, in West Texas, officials several years ago stopped serving children with one form of autism.

In Brazosport ISD, on the Gulf of Mexico, employees were instructed in 2009 to end tutoring for students with severe dyslexia.

In Northwest ISD, near Fort Worth, administrators told parents that they no longer gave speech therapy to high schoolers who stutter.

And in Alief ISD, two staff members recalled being instructed to falsely suggest to parents that their kids had somehow been cured of serious disabilities.

“I was told to go into all these meetings with parents of kids with different disabilities and tell them, ‘Oh, Johnny is doing so much better. So we want to try him in general education, and of course we’ll give him support,'” said Christine Damiani, who served as the Alief Middle School’s special education chair before retiring last year. “None of it was true.”

Overall, Texas special education students are now 55 percent more likely to be returned to general education Tweet this linkthan the national average, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

They are five times more likely to be expelled to a disciplinary school, the statistics show.

“It’s OK for a child to be moved from special ed to general education if they truly no longer need the services,” said former Deputy Secretary of Education Frank Holleman, noting that federal law encourages schools to re-evaluate special ed students every three years. “But if a child is moved just to meet some arbitrary number, that’s the type of thing that can affect a child’s entire educational career and entire life. That needs to stop immediately.”

See here for the background, and as before be sure to read the whole thing. The TEA has since offered a tepid response, though not a solution, to the situation. Which I suppose still counts as progress. And speaking of such things, one more key person has finally taken notice of this.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed concern Monday about the Texas Education Agency’s arbitrary 8.5 percent “benchmark” for special education enrollments in Texas schools that has driven the percentage of disabled children receiving therapy, counseling and tutoring to the lowest rate in the nation.

“Helping children with disabilities has been a priority for the Lt. Governor even before he was elected to public office and he was very concerned to learn about prior policies,” Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said in a statement. “Our office is working very closely with the Commissioner of Education to ensure that students are identified and served appropriately.”

The move aligns the conservative leader of the state Senate with state House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who also has expressed concern about the benchmark.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has so far declined comment.

[…]

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she was “shocked and outraged” by the Chronicle’s report on Sunday, in which one former Laredo ISD elementary school speech therapist, Maricela Gonzalez, described how she and other were ordered to purge the special education rolls. “We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” she said.

Sen. Zaffirini vowed to join with other lawmakers to create legislation to eliminate the special education “cap.”

It is unclear how Patrick, a former chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, hopes to address the issue. His office declined comment.

Such leadership. Kudos to Patrick for finally having an opinion, but it doesn’t mean much until he also has an opinion about what to do about it. The whole reason for this 8.5% cap was to save money. Lifting that cap, or whatever else may be done to address this, will necessarily cost more money. Does Dan Patrick support spending more money on special education, or will he simply demand that the TEA lift this cap and tell the school districts to figure it out on their own? I know which option I’d bet on, but for now at least all we can do is speculate, and keep raising hell about this.

TEA says no more special ed limits

We’ll see about that.

The Texas Education Agency has agreed to stop auditing school districts that give specialized education to more than 8.5 percent of students, officials announced Wednesday, cheering experts, advocates and lawmakers outraged by the policy.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, which had ordered the state to eliminate the arbitrary decade-old enrollment benchmark, officials promised to suspend it and work to eventually end it altogether.

“TEA will send a letter to all school districts in the state reminding them of the requirements of IDEA (the federal law on special education),” wrote Penny Schwinn, the agency’s Deputy Commissioner of Academics. “In addition, TEA will … not use (the policy) for the purposes of interventions staging moving forward.”

But the agency also vigorously defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment, was not meant to save money and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply. Officials also said they had no evidence that the policy had kept any disabled students out of special education, and they did not offer any plan for identifying and helping children who may have been shut out.

[…]

Advocates criticized the state’s letter, saying that “stakeholder input” is not the same as public input, that the policy still saved money by preventing spending increases as more students have entered the state, and that the state’s explanation for the enrollment drop did not make sense because federal laws have affected all states, while only Texas has had a large drop.

“Disability Rights Texas is disappointed by the Texas Education Agency’s defensive response filed with the U.S. Department of Education today,” the group said in a statement. “Students’ futures are held in the balance while TEA refuses to claim any responsibility for the dramatic decline in services to children with disabilities.”

Earlier in the day, 22 national disability advocacy groups wrote to the TEA to say they were “deeply troubled” by the Chronicle’s findings.

After the TEA released its letter to the federal government, Straus said in a statement that the agency’s decision to suspend the target was “good news for Texas families.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the department would review the TEA letter.

“Texas addressed multiple questions and issues and included a number of attachments,” said the spokesman, Jessica Allen. “The Education Department will carefully review the state’s response and, after the review is concluded, determine appropriate next steps.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for a copy of the TEA’s letter to the US Department of Education. Let’s just say that I’m not prepared to take the TEA’s word for it, and any “solution” that doesn’t involve ensuring that all school districts have sufficient funding to adequately provide for all of their special-needs kids is no solution at all. Until we have assurances on that score, this is all talk and no action. The Trib has more.

Feds intervene in Texas special education mess

Good.

The federal government on Monday ordered Texas state officials to eliminate an 8.5 percent benchmark on special education enrollment enforced in the state’s 1,200 school districts unless they can show that it had not kept children with disabilities from receiving appropriate educational services.

The U.S. Department of Education directed the state to report back in 30 days on the benchmark’s impact and on which school districts across the state may have relied on it to deny special education services to children. Its findings on those districts should include “the specific steps the State will take to remedy the effect of such past practices,” the department said.

“It appears that the State’s approach to monitoring local educational agency compliance … 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 three-page letter to Mike Morath, head of 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.”

The TEA, which has denied that children with disabilities have been kept out of special education but has promised to review the issue, said in a statement that it “welcomes the opportunity” to discuss its policies.

[…]

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that public schools provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

TEA officials have said state-by-state comparisons are inappropriate and have attributed the dramatic declines to new teaching techniques that they say have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In response to criticism from lawmakers, school board members, superintendents, advocates and parents, the TEA also has said the policy was adopted in response to a federal effort to reduce over-representation in special education.

Swenson’s letter disclosed that Texas and the U.S. Department of Education have previously discussed the target, in 2014. In that exchange, according to the letter, TEA special education director Eugene Lenz said the districts that exceeded 8.5 percent were not penalized but merely monitored to ensure compliance with the law. He also assured the federal government that the state ensures that all children with disabilities get services.

“However, the information presented in the Chronicle’s investigative article raises serious questions about Texas’s compliance” with federal law and about “the implementation of the approaches Texas described to (the U.S. Department of Education) in 2014,” Swenson wrote. “According to information in the article, some districts view the 8.5 percent (benchmark) as a cap on the number of children with disabilities that may be identified in a district, and in some instances if a district exceeds the cap, the district will be required to develop a corrective action plan demonstrating how it will reduce its special education identification rate.”

See here, here, and here for the background. One wonders if the appearance of the feds will finally stir Greg Abbott to action. Will he bravely defend the TEA’s secret administrative rules from federal interference, or will he maintain radio silence? I’m sure he’s making the political calculations about what he needs to oppose now. Until then, we’ll see how the TEA responds. The Current has more.

Superintendents begin speaking out against special education limits

Good for them.

The leaders of two of the state’s biggest school districts are calling on the Texas Education Agency to stop penalizing districts for giving specialized education to more kids than the agency has deemed prudent.

Superintendents Michael Hinojosa of Dallas and Pedro Martinez of San Antonio came out against the arbitrary enrollment target after a Houston Chronicle investigation found it has led schools across the state to keep tens of thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

Hinojosa said he would launch a review of special education in Dallas, where, the investigation found, just 6.9 percent of students receive special education services such as tutoring, therapies and counseling – about half the national average.

“I was surprised to see (the special education percentage) so low,” said Hinojosa, who previously worked as a superintendent in Georgia. “I’m used to that number being higher.”

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who was hired last month, said he could not yet say whether the target should remain in place.

Already, some state officials have decried the state’s policy, and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, has acknowledged it was likely to be “tweaked.”

The state Senate minority leader, Jose Rodriguez, has begun drafting legislation to address the issue.

“It’s important that we address this issue to ensure children with special needs and their families aren’t denied rights established by federal law,” said Rodriguez, D-El Paso, in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned that this arbitrary performance indicator has disincentivized schools from fulfilling their moral obligation, and obligation under federal law, to proactively search out kids who may qualify for special education services and give them initial screenings.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Because I am that kind of person, I will note again that we have yet to hear anything on this topic from either Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. I’m glad that Sen. Rodriguez plans to file a bill to address this, but I have little to no faith that it will go anywhere in Dan Patrick’s Senate. He just doesn’t care about this. I do have faith that new HISD Superintendent Carranza will have something to say about this, and I hope we hear from him soon.

School district to join lawsuit over STAAR test

Interesting.

Ben Becker, the Houston father who helped organize a legal fight over last year’s STAAR exams, has repeatedly challenged superintendents over the last few months to join him in court to fight for their students.

Becker describes his group as a handful of Texas parents up against the state of Texas, backed by a legal team funded through a crowdfunding campaign. In a year when the STAAR exam went so horribly awry, and outraged so many school officials across the state, Becker says, “as parents [we] look around and wonder, where are the school districts?”

On Tuesday night, one school district is set to answer Becker’s call. Administrators in Marlin ISD, a rural district about 30 miles southeast of Waco, will ask the school board to join the lawsuit filed by Becker’s group in May.

“Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs,” Superintendent Michael Seabolt told Waco station KWTX on Friday, “and essentially that makes Marlin, as a school district, ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

The stakes on last year’s STAAR exams were probably higher for Marlin ISD than any other district in the state. After four years of low ratings from the Texas Education Agency, the district faced possible closure if its students didn’t hit state goals for STAAR scores — and they didn’t.

Seabolt took over the district in July 2015 when Marlin ISD’s situation was already precarious. He and the district’s staff worked furiously to get the schools on track to meet the state’s targets, he told the Observer, so he’s been frustrated to see TEA sidestep the Legislature’s requirements for the test.

Seabolt agrees with the parents’ complaint that TEA flouted a 2015 law that should have shortened the STAAR exams. Records obtained by Becker’s group show that hardly any of the tests were completed in the time frame required by law.

So if TEA goes ahead with plans to take over or close Marlin ISD, Seabolt wondered, “You’re gonna take that action based on illegal test scores?” He drew a comparison to the state’s low target for special education enrollment, which the Houston Chronicle showed this month has deprived thousands of students of services to which they’re entitled.

“Why is it that TEA gets to pick which laws it’ll do and which ones it won’t?” Seabolt asked.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seabolt asks a good question, for which I look forward to hearing the state’s response. And since he brought up the special education issue, I will note that as of yet, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has seen fit to comment on the issue. Too busy with other things, I guess. I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually.

TEA will review special ed limits

It’s a start.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday that his office is reviewing a monitoring system that sets an 8.5 percent benchmark for special education enrollments and strictly audits school districts with enrollments that exceed that rate for students with disabilities.

The Chronicle reported Sunday that TEA officials had arbitrarily selected the 8.5 percent rate in implementing the system a decade ago. Since then, Texas’ special education enrollment has declined from 12 percent in 2004 to exactly 8.5 percent in 2015, by far the lowest in America.

“The Texas Education Agency is committed to conducting a detailed review of this monitoring system and how it impacts Texas students,” Morath said in a statement. “The agency will continue to convene special education advisory groups for feedback and guidance on all aspects of special education policy, as it has for years as part of its annual public rulemaking processes.”

Asked about the Chronicle’s findings at a meeting of the State Board of Education, Morath said that “we’re assessing the detailed list of statements to determine what the real impact is. … It’s a topic of high priority here.”

See here and here for the background. I might suggest that Commissioner Morath begin by speaking to his predecessors, since at least one of them had to have known all about this. It would also be nice to hear what Morath thinks the policy should be, in broad strokes if not in detail. Promising a review is not the same as promising a change. What might we expect to happen when that review has been completed?

But at least Commissioner Morath has acknowledged the issue and is doing something about it. That’s more than we can say for Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. Thankfully, the third leg of the state leadership stool has now also acknowledged the issue.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Thursday he would work with the Texas Education Agency to address concerns about a monitoring system that has led school districts to keep thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

“Students who need special education should not be kept out of it,” Straus said in a Facebook post, which indicated his office had delivered the same message to Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “The House appreciates the Commissioner’s attention to this issue and will work with him to address these concerns,” added Straus, R-San Antonio.

[…]

Several lawmakers, officials, teachers and advocates have expressed outrage at the target, saying it has deprived tens of thousands of disabled children an adequate education.

The Texas Education Agency has denied depriving any students of proper instruction and defended the monitoring system but promised to conduct a “detailed review” of its impact.

In his statement, Straus said the monitoring system was “designed to prevent schools from identifying students for special education when it isn’t necessary.”

However, he stressed “the importance of providing services to all students who need them while continuing to make sure that students are not improperly identified for special education.”

Straus’s legislative district is in the North East ISD, which serves northeastern San Antonio and is the second largest district in Texas’ second largest city. Its special ed enrollment has dropped from 15.3 percent in 2004 to 9.2 percent today, a 40 percent decline that is the biggest among Texas’ largest school districts.

Good for Speaker Straus. Note that his statement does include a statement of what the policy should be. It doesn’t actually promise any changes, either, but it does provide a basis for comparison with the review we’re getting. Still waiting on Abbott and Patrick, who have had the time to talk about plenty of other things in the past week, to say something about this. One might get the impression it’s not that important to them, since if it were they would have said something about it by now.

Some officials take note of special education funding restrictions

It’s a start.

The vice chairman of the State Board of Education, a Houston school board member, a key state senator and scores of parents and disability advocates all expressed strong opposition on Monday to a Texas Education Agency performance-based monitoring system that has kept thousands of disabled children out of special education since 2004.

[…]

Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who is the second-highest-ranking member of the State Board of Education, expressed dismay at TEA’s 8.5 percent special education target.

“It looks awfully arbitrary and in no way mirrors reality,” he said. “The concentric circles of damage that this has done I think is immeasurable at this point.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, called the issue an “utmost priority.”

“We have a constitutional duty and a moral obligation to provide all Texas children with the services that are required to ensure that every student can thrive academically,” said Lucio, D-Brownsville, echoing statements made by several of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. “By urging schools to limit the number of students they enroll in special education services, our state is turning its back on students that need our help the most.”

[…]

Gene Acuña, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, declined further comment. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also declined comment.

Previously, former Gov. Rick Perry, during whose administration the 8.5 percent enrollment target was first put in place, declined to discuss the monitoring system.

In Washington, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that her office was ready to take action, if needed, to ensure that children with disabilities get services.

“We are looking into it,” she said.

See here for the background. The headline on the story is “Officials vow to end limits put on special ed”, but let’s be honest. Until at least two of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus make that vow, nothing is going to happen. Those three, as well as Rick “Dancing Terribly With The Stars” Perry, should not be allowed to “no comment” their way out of this for more than a few days, too. I greatly admire what the Chron has done with this story, but they need to call those three’s offices every day until they have some answers. The other news outlets in this state are more than welcome to get in on that action as well. In the meantime, I hope there’s more to report on, and I definitely hope to hear of some followup from the US Department of Education soon.

“Denied”

This is worth your time to read.

During the first week of school at Shadow Forest Elementary, a frail kindergartner named Roanin Walker had a meltdown at recess. Overwhelmed by the shrieking and giggling, he hid by the swings and then tried to escape the playground, hitting a classmate and biting a teacher before being restrained.

The principal called Roanin’s mother.

“There’s been an incident.”

Heidi Walker was frightened, but as she hurried to the Humble school that day in 2014, she felt strangely relieved.

She had warned school administrators months earlier that her 5-year-old had been diagnosed with a disability similar to autism. Now they would understand, she thought. Surely they would give him the therapy and counseling he needed.

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.

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

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.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Texas is the only state that has ever set a target for special education enrollment, records show.

It has been remarkably effective.

In the years since its implementation, the rate of Texas kids receiving special education has plummeted from near the national average of 13 percent to the lowest in the country — by far.

In 2015, for the first time, it fell to exactly 8.5 percent.

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.

“It’s extremely disturbing,” said longtime education advocate Jonathan Kozol, who described the policy as a cap on special education meant to save money.

“It’s completely incompatible with federal law,” Kozol said. “It looks as if they’re actually punishing districts that meet the needs of kids.”

Heidi Walker hoped that Humble school officials would help her son Roanin adapt and cope when he entered kindergarten.

In a statement, Texas Education Agency officials denied they had kept disabled students out of special education and said their guideline calling for enrollments of 8.5 percent was not a cap or a target but an “indicator” of performance by school districts. They said state-by-state comparisons were inappropriate and attributed the state’s dramatic declines in special educations enrollments to new teaching techniques that have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In fact, despite the number of children affected, no one has studied Texas’ 32 percent drop in special education enrollment.

The Chronicle investigation included a survey of all 50 states, a review of records obtained from the federal government, state governments and three dozen school districts, and interviews with more than 300 experts, educators and parents.

The investigation found that the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent enrollment target has led to the systematic denial of services by school districts to tens of thousands of families of every race and class across the state.

Among the findings:

• The benchmark has limited access to special education for children with virtually every type of disability. Texas schools now serve fewer kids with learning disabilities (46 percent lower than in 2004), emotional and mental illnesses (42 percent), orthopedic impairments (39 percent), speech impediments (27 percent), brain injuries (20 percent), hearing defects (15 percent) and visual problems (8 percent).

• 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.

• 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. That 15 percent difference is triple the gap that existed when the monitoring system began.

See here for the unebeddable charts that accompany the story, and be sure to read the whole thing, as it is well-reported and deeply infuriating. I had no idea any of this had been happening, and that’s despite knowing a couple of families who were directly affected by it. Now that this is out in the light, the next step is to try to pin down some elected officials and get them on the record about it. What do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick think about this, and more importantly what if anything do they think needs to be done about it? Perhaps Rick Perry could spare a few minutes from his cha-cha practice to answer how his happened on his watch. Regardless of what answers we get, I hope the federal government opens a big ol’ probe of this practice, and comes down like a ton of bricks as needed. I don’t know what else the Chron has in store on this issue, but whatever it is, I look forward to it. Well done.