Texas House Speaker Joe Straus jumped into the ongoing controversy over whether public school children were denied special education services, penning a letter to the state’s top education official and urging temporary action.
On Wednesday, Straus sent a letter to Education Commissioner Mike Morath. He noted a top priority for the state’s next legislative session as “to make special education services available to all students who need them, while ensuring that schools do not identify students for special education when it isn’t appropriate.”
Straus asserted that the Texas House will work with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to find the right balance, stating that the current monitoring system, the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS), “that has created so much concern” was implemented by a previous education commissioner more than a decade ago. He thanked Morath for working “diligently” on the agency’s internal PBMAS probe.
The concern over PBMAS stems from a recent Houston Chronicle investigation. In his letter, Straus refers to the Houston newspaper’s charges that the TEA denied tens of thousands of students from getting special education services by implementing an “arbitrary” target of 8.5 percent for special education enrollment. The national average of school children receiving some form of special education services is 13 percent.
Interestingly, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Students with Disabilities “fast facts” do not appear to suggest the national average is a prescribed target. It only traces the patterns of change in the percentages of special education students by disability since 1976. The U.S. Department of Education lists its most recent state-by-state percentages of students designated for Individual Education Program (IEP) special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The TEA has maintained the state has no benchmark or cap to keep special needs students from receiving services. The agency told Breitbart Texas, in response to a public information request, that the special education representation indicator in PBMAS “never included a cap for services” and there are no documents, statements or PBMAS manuals “that describe 8.5 percent as a cap for services.”
The TEA told Breitbart Texas by email, under PBMAS, a school district is “obligated to identify and provide a free appropriate education (FAPE) to all students with disabilities who require special education services.”
The matter remains under the agency’s investigation. In his letter, Straus wrote: “But in the meantime, students should not be denied the services they need. I urge you, immediately, to either make significant changes to the specific indicator in the monitoring system that is being cited as a reason school are denying needed services to students, or to suspend use of this indicator in the monitoring system until the Legislature and the agency can come up with a more lasting solution.”
Child Find, a federal mandate under IDEA, requires all school districts to find, identify, and evaluate every child who “may need special education services” even if a school does not provide these services to the student. The mandate applies to all youngsters from birth through age 21 and includes students who attend public and private schools, as well as those considered highly mobile, illegal immigrants, and who are wards of the state, according to Wrights Law.
A criticism of school diagnosed student disabilities has been the increasing pathologizing of children’s behaviors into mental illnesses. In 2013, the Huffington Post questioned the astronomical number of American school children between the ages of 4 and 17, then 6.4 million (or 11 percent of the student population), identified with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Over-identification of special needs may be as worthy a concern as is under-identification.
Said Straus in his letter: “I also know that we don’t want the pendulum to again swing too far toward over-populating special education, and that enactment of a better system may require additional resources.”
Breitbart Texas reported since the Houston Chronicle ran its series that the federal government ordered Texas to show it did not prevent children with disabilities from receiving services and is in compliance with special education laws. The TEA will soon present its findings.
Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.