- Bill Selak via Flickr creative commons
The feds on Monday told Texas to either end its apparently random target for special ed enrollment or prove the state isn't blocking tens of thousands of disabled kids from receiving the special classes and services they need.
The letter to state officials from Sue Swenson, the U.S. Department of Education's acting assistant secretary for special education, comes on the heels of a bombshell Houston Chronicle investigation last month that revealed tens of thousands of Texas children with disabilities have been kept out of special education over the past decade due to an arbitrary benchmark that state education officials can’t really defend.
Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal had sought to explain just why it is that Texas’ rate of special ed enrollment, the lowest in the country at 8.5 percent, hangs so far below the national average of 13 percent. The apparent answer: a 2004 decision by the Texas Education Agency to set the target percentage for how many students should get special education at 8.5 percent – a decision that even high-ranking State Board of Education officials now call “arbitrary.” Disability rights advocates say the move has likely done immense damage to kids that desperately needed, but were left out of, special ed classes as districts pushed their enrollment down year after year to meet the state’s random benchmark.
Last year, the state average for special ed enrollment dropped to exactly 8.5 percent, the state’s new benchmark. State politicians have been clamoring for the state to fix the enrollment target for special ed since the Chronicle's investigation dropped. Some lawmakers like State Sen. Jose Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, say their offices have received numerous calls from parents whose children have been denied special ed services at school. “Many of these children have been diagnosed by private physicians and yet are turned down for services at school," Menéndez said in a statement last month.
In her letter to the Texas Education Agency on Monday, Swenson wrote that Texas' system, which currently penalizes district with special ed enrollment that exceeds 8.5 percent of students, seems to have led to "districts' failure to identify and evaluate all students suspected of having a disability and who need special education." She gave the state a month to either provide evidence the state benchmark makes sense and hasn't kept kids out of special ed, or present a plan to reform the system. Depending on the state's response, Swenson wrote that the feds will "determine whether additional monitoring activities or other administrative enforcement or corrective actions are necessary."