Bill Selak via Flickr creative commons
A little more than a decade ago, officials with the Texas Education Agency decided to drastically reduce target enrollment for public school districts across the state. At the time, some 12 percent of Texas public school students received some kind of special programing (like tutoring, therapies or counseling), which is just below the national average. In 2004, Texas education officials, for reasons they still can't really explain, set the state's new benchmark at 8.5 percent.
The move happened right around the time the TEA implemented a new monitoring system for districts, began penalizing ones with low scores, and started auditing districts for putting too many kids in special ed classes. The result, according to this bombshell Houston Chronicle investigation
: districts were effectively forced to jettison kids from special ed courses and programs until they met the state's new, arbitrary standard. One elementary school speech therapist told the paper, "We basically just picked kids and weeded them out. We thought it was unfair, but we did it."
On Wednesday, the TEA told the feds that it will stop the policy of auditing districts that offer special ed to too many kids. Still, in a letter to U.S. Department of Education officials, who had previously called on the state to end its de-facto rule on special ed, TEA officials defended the policy, said there as nothing wrong with it, and denied that hurt any kids by pushing districts to slash special ed enrollment over the past decade.
In fact, the TEA basically blames whatever problems did occur on districts that "erroneously" interpreted the rule as a cap on enrollment "rather than a data point." We can only imagine how infuriating that response must be for people like GeorgeAnne Reuthinger, a former Laredo school district special education director who says the state made her purge the district's special ed rolls. "TEA required us to do this," she told the Chron
. "There was no wiggle room." In San Antonio ISD, which in 2004 saw special ed enrollment of nearly 13 percent, special ed enrollment has fallen two percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, South San ISD went from 10.6 percent special ed enrollment in 2004 to around 7 percent last year.
While disability rights advocates are happy the state's backing off its policy (after pressure from the feds, numerous state lawmakers and even the Texas House speaker, that is), they're troubled by the fact that not only are education officials still defending it, they're actually arguing that no damage has been done. The Chron's
investigation indicates that somewhere around a quarter million children with disorders like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, epilepsy and speech impediments have been denied services since the state's de-facto rule took effect.
In a statement Wednesday, Disability Rights Texas said it was "disappointed" by the TEA's response. “Students’ futures are held in the balance while TEA refuses to claim any responsibility for the dramatic decline in services to children with disabilities," the group said in a statement.