Texas May Be Denying Tens Of Thousands Of Children Special Education | KERA News

Texas May Be Denying Tens Of Thousands Of Children Special Education

Oct 21, 2016
Originally published on October 21, 2016 10:10 am

When Rosley Espinoza's daughter was very young, in preschool, she started acting differently. She seemed distracted and would get in trouble at school.

"Lack of interest, teachers' notes coming home with behavior notes," Espinoza says, speaking in Spanish.

She says she asked school officials to evaluate her daughter, Citlali, for special education, but they didn't.

Every year, Espinoza says, Citlali's behavior got worse. Last year, in second grade, "she stopped paying attention in class ... [she was] harassing other children. On some occasions she would scream, yell."

Espinoza says all of that caused her daughter, who's now 8, to show signs of stress and depression, but her school still denied Citlali an evaluation. Espinoza may now know why.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that Texas, the state with the lowest percentage of children in special education, 8.5 in 2015, may arbitrarily be capping services, which are entitled by federal law to students with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental illness and other special needs.

The story isn't necessarily the same across the country. An average of 13 percent of students in the U.S. receive special education. That's according to the 2013-2014 school year, the most recent available data.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education has given the Texas Education Agency until early November to justify, or drop, its 8.5 percent benchmark and prove that no qualified students were denied special education services.

"It just doesn't seem to me we would likely see a decrease in the number of special education children," says Mike Moses, who ran the Texas Education Agency from 1995 to 1999.

"At one time we had a state average of 11 percent, or 12 percent."

Since he left the TEA more than 15 years ago, he says the number of low-birth-weight babies, teen pregnancies, kids in poverty and the entire student population in Texas, has only grown. So how can the percentage of special education students drop so dramatically?

"I think districts are under a lot of pressure to comply with the state cap that's been put into place by TEA," says Kym Rogers, a lawyer with the advocacy organization, Disability Rights Texas.

And there's this: The state has reportedly saved billions of dollars by denying services to tens of thousands of children, like Citlali, according to the Houston Chronicle investigation.

Along the way Citlali saw a private doctor who diagnosed her with several disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and placed her on medication.

At that point her school did offer counseling, but still no additional special education services in the classroom. District reports show Citlali was extremely smart, but remained aggressive and was even violent with classmates while struggling with school.

That's when the Espinoza family sought legal help from Kym Rogers. When she stepped in, school officials agreed to evaluate Citlali. Rogers says that's "because we put it in writing. Because I requested it."

But to Rogers, it shouldn't have taken a letter from a lawyer.

"Every school district has an obligation to identify students who are eligible for special education ... If there's reason to suspect there's a disability, the school district has an obligation to do that evaluation," she says. That's an obligation by law.

Citlali is now getting the help she may have needed four years ago. Rogers believes Citlali's evaluation was delayed to keep her from receiving, sometimes expensive, services.

Since 2004, the TEA has reportedly threatened to crack down on districts if their special education enrollment exceeded 8.5 percent.

In Lancaster, south of Dallas, where Citlali goes to school, the district's special education enrollment is even lower than the state's average, at 7.8 percent.

Still, Lancaster school officials insisted in an email that there was no pressure from the TEA to keep their numbers low. Adding, "The district does what's best for children."

Soon, Texas will have to prove that was the case across the state.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many parents in Texas say they tried and failed to get their struggling children access to special education. And now they may know why. New revelations indicate that the state has arbitrarily capped special education enrollment at 8.5 percent. Here's Bill Zeeble with our member station KERA in Dallas.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: That percentage, the lowest of any state in the country, doesn't make sense to Mike Moses. He was the Texas education commissioner from 1995 to 1999.

MIKE MOSES: It just doesn't seem to me that we would likely see a decrease in the number of special education children. At one time, we had a state average of probably 11 or 12 percent.

ZEEBLE: Moses says the number of low birthweight babies, teen pregnancies, kids in poverty - not to mention the entire Texas student population - has only grown. What's shrunk is the state's special education enrollment - down to 8.5 percent. The national average - 13 percent. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that low percentage was picked arbitrarily, chosen to cut costs.

ROSLY ESPINOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

ZEEBLE: Rosly Espinoza may be paying the price. In pre-kindergarten, her daughter, Citlali, seemed distracted and sometimes acted out. She speaks through translator Maria Sanchez.

ESPINOZA: (Through interpreter) It all, you know, started with school issues, lack of interest, teachers' notes...

ZEEBLE: Espinoza asked school officials to evaluate her daughter. But they didn't. In second grade, she says, things got worse.

ESPINOZA: (Through interpreter) She stopped paying attention in class - harassing other children. In some occasions, she would yell. So at some point, it did cause her stress and depression.

ZEEBLE: And those were some of the symptoms that led a doctor to diagnose Citlali with several disorders and prescribe her medication. The school offered counseling - but still no additional education services in the classroom.

District reports show Citlali was extremely smart but remained aggressive and continued hitting classmates while struggling with school. Frustrated, Espinoza got an attorney. Kym Rogers with the advocacy organization Disability Rights Texas says the child finally got evaluated.

KYM ROGERS: Because I requested it.

ZEEBLE: Rogers says it shouldn't have taken a lawyer's note for an evaluation but believes the paper trail forced action.

ROGERS: Every school district has an obligation to identify students who are eligible for special education. And they're not to just wait for a parent request for an evaluation. If there's reason to suspect there's a disability, the school district has an obligation to do that evaluation.

ZEEBLE: An obligation by law - after Citlali's evaluation, the district agreed she qualified for special education with an emotional disturbance in Lancaster, south of Dallas, where Citlali goes to school. The district's special education enrollment is 7.8 percent. Rogers believes that evaluation was delayed to keep Citlali from receiving those services.

ROGERS: I think that districts are under a lot of pressure to comply with TEA.

ZEEBLE: Lancaster school officials said in an email that there was no pressure from the Texas Education Agency, and the district does what's best for children. Meanwhile, federal officials are asking the TEA to explain and justify its 8.5 percent benchmark and show that no qualified students were denied special education services. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.