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Texas Education Agency suspends controversial special ed policy

Texas Education Agency suspends controversial special ed policy

Photo courtesy AP

Texas Education Agency suspends controversial special ed policy
November 03
12:15 2016

The fight to change special education policy in Texas took a turn early Thursday when the Texas Education Agency announced it would be suspending a policy that punishes school districts for putting more than 8.5 percent of students in special education classes.

Since 2004, Texas’ education policies have systematically pushed enrollments in special education classes down to the minimum required of 8.5 percent though the national average is 13 percent. And some districts, such as in the Dallas area, serve even fewer kids with special educational needs.

“It is very disturbing,” said Mary Estes, an Educational Psychology professor at UNT. “It goes against federal law [and] it appears that Texas may be out of compliance.”

But a Supreme Court case shows the problem is not just in Texas.

Special ed in court

In 1982, Amy Rowley, a deaf student, was about to start kindergarten in Peekskill, New York. Her parents, wanting to give her the best education they could provide, wanted a full-time sign interpreter, but the district did not comply. The case went from docket to docket until it got to the Supreme Court which agreed to the school district, saying that the district did their job to provide her with free and appropriate education- a minimal bar was set.

Thirty- four years later the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case regarding special education programs on September 29 after a Colorado family pulled their kid out of public school and placed him in a private school in order to receive “better educational opportunities.”

After a diagnosis of autism, Endrew Joseph’s parents believe that their son’s education was not progressing at Douglas County Schools, and so decided to take them to court.

Seeking tuition reimbursement, Douglas County Schools denied them, and said Endrew did receive some educational benefits. The circuit court also sided with the school and cited the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), saying the act set up opportunities for kids with special educational requirements to obtain such education, but it did not specify to what extent. Not satisfied, Endrew’s parents, Jennifer and Joseph F, petitioned for their case to be heard at the supreme court level.

Though a primary catalyst for change, Endrew’s parents said that IDEA did not highlight specific special education requirements for public schools.

“Resolving the conflict among the circuits will ensure that millions of children with disabilities receive a consistent level of education,” Endrew’s parents wrote.

Special education in Texas

The top five biggest districts in Texas have seen enrollments for special education programs go up. Though Denton ISD is not part of that top five, it too has also seen similar increases.

Denton ISD has reported that enrollment has increased by 1,295 students, and a 2.5 percent growth will occur in the next 5 years.

There have been six districts in Denton county that have seen in a loss of special education enrollment: Argyle ISD, Aubrey ISD, Krum ISD, Pilot Point ISD, Ponder and Sanger ISD. Though Texas does have full inclusion in general education, this program is nationwide.

The Houston Chronicle initially uncovered unequal education standards across the state and published their findings early September. Then notified the Department of Education which ordered Texas to show proof all students got the attention they needed.

“I knew that there were fewer and fewer students being served in Texas,” said Estes.

After talking to an elementary school principal in Arlington, Estes said she discovered that out of 800 students only 26 were identified for special education because she was having trouble identifying the kids that need the program.

When Estes taught in Arlington, she said a population of 500 students had three special education teachers with 26 students on each of their rosters. Estes said Generally in Texas, there is no shortage in special education teachers but the enrollment cuts will decrease the teacher ratio. The cap, resulting in less students for special education, will decrease the demand for special education teachers

“I was shocked,” Estes said. “It was the first inkling that I received that Texas wasn’t serving the amount of students they used to.”

To be identified as needing special education, there are numerous tests, including a meeting in front of a board of teachers where diagnosticians, educational psychologists, counselors, speech pathologists, and in some cases an assessment specialist, all sit down and review the diagnostic test.

But by putting a cap on the number of students admitted, Texas has set a higher bar that would qualify kids for special education. The amount of students that need special education remains the same but to be identified as needing special education has been reduced dramatically.

“I think they did to save money, that’s my own opinion, and they were very successful,” Estes said.

The Houston Chronicle found out that by setting the 8.5 percent enrollment, The Texas Education Agency was able to save billions of dollars.

Since 1982, the standard has been set with the Rowley case, which brought forth that the nation has to provide free appropriate education. Later IDEA act was passed and has only been amended twice since then. Now the recent case from Colorado, brings up all mass inequality that has built up since the Rowley standard was placed, thus placing much more significance to this case. If overturned, the case could potentially overturn the Rowley Case.

“I am glad they are ruling on this case,” said Estes. “Every kid deserve free, appropriate education.”

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Sadia Saeed

Sadia Saeed

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