There has been a firestorm in recent months about the alleged “cap” supposedly imposed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on the percentage of students who are eligible for special education intervention due to disabilities and the related relaxation of accountability measures for students with this classification. The accusation in a recently released federal report on the matter is that, as a result of this limit, a large number of students across the state have been deprived of needed intervention measures.
I have watched the development of this firestorm with more than passing interest, since I have been intimately involved with state education policy over the past 20 years and have also had in depth exposure to the literacy crisis in our schools, which is a key element of this raging debate over special education, as a founding director and past board chairman of a Houston area reading intervention program sponsored by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Education Fund.
First, I am not aware of any hard and fast limit imposed by the TEA on the percentage of students that can be classified as special education students. It is true that there were guidelines initiated by the federal Department of Education under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 that no doubt put pressure on the states not to have a disproportionate number of students in special education and the law actually put limits on the percentage that could be exempted from the required achievement assessments. How each state including Texas internalized these pressures I am not aware, but the state did exceed the federal limit on the special education testing exemption by a considerable margin in the early years of the new law.
But here is the critical question: Why then and now are there so many students placed in special education? Many districts report 15-20% or more of their students so classified. Are there really that many students with true learning disabilities? This is where my seven years of experience on the ground intervening in high at-risk, low performing schools comes into play. What we found without doubt is that large numbers of students, particularly in the early grades, were being placed in special education because of the failure of the school to properly teach them how to read, and from there they were essentially “warehoused”, avoiding corrective intervention along with educator accountability for what is really a literacy issue and an instructional issue. As veteran literacy expert Donna Garner characterizes it, multitudes of students are being labeled “special education” when they are actually “reading disabled”. This is the real tragedy of this issue, not some mystical “caps” on the classification.
I am encouraged that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is on top of the real issue here and is determined to transform reading instructional standards to conform to effective phonics-based methodologies as spelled out in the recently revised English/Language Arts/Reading standards under the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The critical need, however, is to require that Texas teacher preparation programs, primarily the colleges of education, get the message and conform to these standards, because that has been the historic disconnect.
Another proposed program that should be adopted by the state for true disabilities is to “voucherize” special education with scholarships provided to each special education student to directly seek the best solution to their particular disability. This has worked very well in Florida over the past decade in a program called the MacKay Scholarships and could be the best long term solution to the true special education problem in Texas, but to date unfortunately it has been blocked by the various educator lobbies.