How Texas keeps out tens of thousands of children out of special education,
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."