Number in Special Ed Going Down: What’s Going On????

On Sunday, September 11th, the Houston Chronicle published a major piece of investigative journalism. The main point of the piece was the assertion that Texas is intentionally and systematically denying special education services to students who need them.  The numbers over the past several years do show a dramatic drop in students served via special education.  The Chronicle puts the blame squarely on T.E.A.  But the Chronicle failed to note the role that Congress has played in this.  Texas did set out to lower the number of children served in special education…but that was because Congress called for states and school districts to do exactly that.

In its 2004 re-write of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Congress stated that one of its purposes was “to reduce the need to label children as disabled in order to address the learning and behavioral needs of such children.”  In other words, Congress wanted to see schools provide better services to kids before they put them in the special education program.  In particular, the concern was that many kids were being labeled as “special ed” and given a disability label, when in fact, their learning problems were attributable to a lack of proper instruction.   To put this intention into practice, Congress stated that a child could not be placed in a special education program if the “determinant factor” for that designation was “A) lack of appropriate instruction in reading….B) lack of instruction in math; or C) limited English proficiency.”

In response to that Congressional mandate, the Department of Education enacted regulations that require special procedures prior to identifying a child as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). SLD is the largest single category of students with disabilities, encompassing close to half of those identified.  Thus the SLD group was a particular target of the Congressional effort to reduce the number of students receiving special education services.    The regulations that went into effect in 2006 require schools to go through a process prior to referring a child for an evaluation for an SLD.  That process is what we now call RTI—Response to Intervention.

Contrary to the Chronicle’s article, RTI is required, at least with regard to a possible SLD.   RTI is designed to slow down the path to special education. However, it is not intended to stand in the way of student achievement, and if that is how it is used, then it is not being implemented properly.

The other Congressional concern was the overrepresentation of racial minorities and English language learners in our special education programs.  To address those concerns, Congress required states to develop a plan “designed to prevent the inappropriate overidentification or disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity” in special education programs. So any school district that had a “disproportionality” problem was under pressure to reduce the numbers of African-American, Hispanic or English language learning children in the special education program.

Numbers in special education are down due to multiple factors. No doubt, the pressure that T.E.A. applies to get districts down to the 8.5% figure is a factor. But so is the effective use of RTI whereby struggling learners are making real progress without “special education.”   And all of this is attributable to the federal government.  Congress continues to make the call in special education, despite not paying the bulk of the price.


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!! We talk about DAEP.