Experts can’t explain drop in state’s special education numbers
Special education students seem to be disappearing in Texas.
The Lone Star State diagnosed just 8.8 percent of its public school students as having special needs in 2011, down from 12 percent in 2000. Texas now has the lowest percentage of special education students in the nation – a full 4 percentage points below the U.S. average. Urban giants like the Houston and Dallas school districts identify even fewer children at 7.9 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.
While some educators take the declines as a positive sign, advocates fear the state might be under-diagnosing to reduce costs or to circumvent accountability measures. Others worry that the growing immigrant population may be underserved by a system that’s difficult for even the most knowledgeable parents to navigate.
In the last seven years, even as Texas’ population steadily increased and the incidence of autism exploded, the state’s special education population shrank by about 103,000 students.
“Texas is definitely an aberration in both the low percentage of its students that it identifies for special education, and the fact that this percentage has declined significantly over the past decade or so,” said Janie Scull, a research analyst and production manager with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
In May 2011, Scull co-authored a report, Shifting Trends in Special Education, which identified Texas as an outlier. It said the state’s numbers could be low because Texas law doesn’t require dyslexic children to be classified as special education students. The report also notes that Texas excludes certain young children with “developmental delays” from its federal reporting.
But neither of those factors explains the dramatic decline in Texas’ numbers over the last decade, Scull noted. Neither educators nor parents can pinpoint with certainty why the special education population is dwindling.
National rates steady
The largest category in special education is children with a “specific learning disability.” In Texas, that category peaked in 1999 at 266,934 children, but fell to 172,148 by 2011, according to Texas Education Agency data. Nationally, the percentage of 3- to 21-year-old students with learning disabilities dropped from 6.1 percent in 2000 to 4.9 percent in 2010, according to the latest federal data.
Overall, national special education rates remained steady at 13 percent in that same span.
That data has prompted different interpretations.
“It’s very encouraging,” said Jack Fletcher, a University of Houston professor who heads the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities. “I don’t think people fully understand why, but it does seem to coincide with the state and federal initiatives for beginning reading instruction.”
Teachers are putting forth a greater effort to provide all young children with solid reading instruction and intense intervention, preventing the need for many to be referred to special education, Fletcher said.
‘Doing an atrocious job’
Louis Geigerman, a Houston advocate for children with special needs, has the opposite take. “They are doing an atrocious job of teaching kids to read,” Geigerman said, pointing to high dropout rates and flat test scores.
Advocates worry that school districts are making it harder for students to qualify for special education services, and say the learning disability category may be easier to dispute than categories that include children with severe developmental disabilities.
States also may have incentive to keep special-needs children from being a large enough group to count separately under the No Child Left Behind law. Large enough subgroups must achieve passing scores for schools to avoid sanctions.
It’s also possible, one parent suggested, that more families are being pushed out of the public schools, turning instead to private school or home school.
“From being in the system, you hear the complaints. You hear the doors being locked and shut and closed,” said Conroe mother Barbara Knighton, founder of Parents Supporting Parents. “The school district is not giving them what they need. They’re just sitting there in class. They’re bullied, they’re ignored.”
Gene Lenz, director of federal and state education policy for the Texas Education Agency, said the declines in special education numbers can be traced to improved training for teachers, additional classroom resources and the state’s focus on ensuring that all children can read by third grade.
“While we’re proud of the work that’s happened here, we’re not naive,” Lenz said. “We’re always worried about whether everyone has access to special education services that needs it. But nothing seems more inappropriate to me than to place a child into special education when they don’t have a disability.”
Texas has moved away from over-diagnosing students, he added. At one point, children may have been sent to special education because of the color of their skin, he said. Now, every effort is made to refer students only after they fail to respond to intervention.
“Districts are taking care to make sure that’s 100 percent true before they place a label on a child,” Lenz said.