In a recent Houston Chronicle Expose, it unmasked how unelected state officials have devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled students out of special education. As an educator in rural Mississippi, I was horrified by this piece and its findings. I’ve had the opportunity to teach students with disabilities and have seen first-hand the value and necessity of these various services.
Texas is in the spotlight regarding this growing concern over cuts to special education services and the long-term impacts on the children that get left behind. In 2004, the Texas Education Agency created a regulation that restricts the number of students who receive special education services to 8.5 percent. Furthermore, this regulation punishes schools that fail to abide by this benchmark. These new expectations are part of the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis, which has led thousands of disabled students to be excluded from special education services. School districts across the state have started to classify students as “504’s”, which allows students extra time on examinations but declines them access to special education services. Districts have also convinced parents to pull their children out of public school. This system has been so “effective”, yet roughly 250,000 students that have a right to services such as therapy, counseling, and one-on-one tutoring are being turned away. Technically, it’s illegal for states to cap special education. Texas’ way around the Individual Disability Education Act, a law that gave every child, including those with disabilities a right to access public education, was to count the number of special education students as an indicator of school quality. The effects of this percentage are reflected in the chart below:
This chart displays Texas’s “unofficial” special education cap. Looking at 2004 to now, Texas has 46 percent fewer kids with learning disabilities, and the percentage of students with emotional and mental illnesses, orthopedic impairments, speech impairments and brain injuries has also dropped significantly. This drop is most apparent in big cities — Houston and Dallas offer only 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of students’ special education services. The origin of this “indicator” is rooted in Texas officials’ decision to cut Texas Education Agency’s budget by $1.1 billion dollars. This drop is due to Texas’ system using low special education percentages as an “indicator” of school quality, not due to a decline of students who need special education assistance.
On average, educating a special education student is twice as costly as an average student. The federal government pays only 20 percent of the cost of special education leaving a state like Texas to spend nearly $3 billion in 2002; the main factor in creating the 8.5 percent cap on special education services. According to former Commissioner Shirley Neeley Richardson, this 8.5 percentage was a “first stab” at addressing the high percentage of special education students. This “first stab” has been remarkably effective, as 96 percent of all districts have reduced their special education rates since 2004. Districts that did not abide by this percentage had their funding cut and were forced to provide a corrective action plan that would reduce special education percentages. Districts have also cut percentages by forcing families to bear the burden for disability evaluations, claiming there is a waiting list and falsely telling parents testing only happens once every two years.
However, one should not make the mistake of believing Texas and other conservative states are the only ones neglecting special education. Lawsuits have sprung up throughout the country, including in progressive states such as California and Massachusetts. A lawsuit in California heard by the federal courts dealt with parents throughout the state who argued that California wasn’t providing adequate education to disabled students. Parents in California fought in some cases for a decade to get their children the help they needed. A lawsuit also occurred in Massachusetts where the Massachusetts Advocates for Children argued that children are being left without services for months at an early age, stunting their developmental progress. As shown through Texas, California and Massachusetts, there are not enough protections in place for students with disabilities.
To ensure that students are provided adequate resources and equal access to a quality education, the federal government should cap itemized deductions for households. Per a CNN article, if the federal government caps itemized deductions to $50,000, roughly $749 billion would be raised in the next decade. If lawmakers want to make sure charitable contributions are not taxed, roughly $490 billion would be raised. The government should cap these deductions and stipulate that school districts must spend 50 percent of all additional funds received from this revenue towards special education students. This would give school districts the funding they need to provide students with an equal and equitable education.
Every day that the federal government stands absent, more students with disabilities are being neglected and falling further behind. Stella Young, a disability rights activist once wrote, “My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.” We must act so that all students persevere in an environment that will allow them to succeed.
Image source: Marilyn Nieves, Getty Images