Recent articles in the Houston Chronicle placed the spotlight on the topic of special education in our public schools. Providing services to students with special needs is one of the most important functions of public education. It is also one of the most complex.
At the center of the controversy is a 2004 decision by Texas Education Agency officials to ensure school districts were conservatively identifying students eligible for special education. To accomplish this, TEA officials gave local districts a target number – 8.5 percent – creating a statistical standard for qualifying students for special services. This decision had the effect of reducing the overall number of students enrolled in special education.
In spite of the efforts by many districts to identify and qualify students appropriately for services, special education enrollment in Texas steadily declined since 2004. The targeted statewide average of 8.5 percent was finally achieved in 2015.
The Houston Chronicle reported that nationally, around 13 percent of all students are enrolled in special education when compared to the 8.5 percent in Texas – the lowest in the nation.
These articles present a unique opportunity to engage communities with the topic of special education and how to best identify, provide, and educate a significant portion of our student population – our children with special needs.
Complicating matters are the issues of data, student intervention strategies, and money. Student data and how it is recorded from state to state needs to be reviewed for comparative accuracy. For example, in many states, dyslexia is considered part of special education. However, in Texas, it is under a separate program. Accurate comparative data provides the foundation for collaborative conversations and meaningful student outcomes.
Improved teaching strategies, "Response to Intervention" initiatives, and accommodations under "Section 504" plans are given as reasons for the steady decline in the enrollment of special education since 2004. These strategies are designed to augment special education – not replace it. These strategies and accommodations need to be validated as appropriate tools with positive outcomes for students with special needs.
And finally, there is the issue of money: the perceived driver to the goal of 8.5 percent. Concerning the cost of special education, there is only one way to say it – it is expensive. The question is not whether we have a choice in providing these services, but whether the funds allocated to districts are appropriate and are being spent efficiently.
Since publication of the Houston Chronicle articles, members of the United States Department of Education, Texas Education Agency, Texas Legislature, State Board of Education, advocacy groups, school trustees, superintendents, educators and parents have all raised a brow of concern.
Special Education is a complex issue. It is guided by a web of federal and state regulations that are not well understood at the local community level. The time is right for an honest conversation about a program that serves our students with some of the greatest needs – a program that sometimes is found in the shadow of others. It is important we communicate with purpose for improvement and without finger pointing or blame.
Under the axiom that the system of public schools is a shared responsibility requiring civic engagement at all levels, consider the following questions as conversation starters between communities and local districts.
▪ In our particular community, to what do we specifically attribute our special education enrollment decline since 2004?
▪ How do we use "Response to Intervention" (RtI’s) and "Section 504" in relationship to identifying children for special education services?
▪ What monitors or safeguards do we use to ensure our local school district applies best practices when identifying and providing students with special education services?
▪ What are our financial revenues to fund special education and what are the expenses associated in providing appropriate services?
The work required to continuously improve public education is never ending. The opportunity is before us – make education a priority.
Bobby J Rigues, Aledo ISD School Trustee
Make Education a Priority, Inc. CEO