This Fall’s Big Story (So Far): Schools Denying Kids Special Education Services

Since the story came out, the Houston Chronicle reporter has been interviewed by ProPublica & the Education Writers Association (most annoying autoplay ever — please turn it off!).  Read too many followups by other outlets to count, over at the paper’s Developments page.

“It’s been crazy, it’s been overwhelming,” said Rosenthal about the response. “This is the by far the most amount of people who have connected with me already. I’ve never done a story like this.”

Sure, the the package includes a searchable database to allow readers to read about local schools. Other data provided include the percentage of kids in special education by state from 1995 to 2014 and the percentage of kids in special education in biggest U.S. school districts. Get it all here. There are also some lovely pictures and video.

But all that’s pretty standard at this point. So what’s made this such a big story? It’s got everything: mystery and drama, size and scope, sympathetic victims and bureaucratic bad guys. And as this map shows, variations in declining SPED services aren’t just a Texas thing:

The piece is also unusual in that so many kids’ lives have been affected. The difference between the 13 percent national average and the state average is under 9 percent. Every percentage point change in special ed students represents 50,000 Texas kids per year, according to Rosenthal.

Here’s Rosenthal talking about the story on a local TV politics show:

As is sometimes the case in situations like this, Rosenthal is an enterprise reporter not an education beat reporter, and the story was a bit of an accident, he said in a recent phone interview. Rosenthal has been at the Chronicle for just under three years, and worked at the Seattle Times for three years before that (including a year on the education beat).

The low SPED rate “was something that was known about, written about, discussed,” Rosenthal said. “But nobody seemed to know why.” It being an off year for the state legislature, Rosenthal and his editor were looking for looking around for something to dig into related to kids. “We kind stumbled into this one.”

It wasn’t clear at first what was going on. There’s been a slight national decline in SPED services, which helped mask the dramatic decline in Texas for a time. There was some sense in the state that Texas schools had figured out ways to serve more kids in mainstream classrooms without resorting to SPED. It was also hard to find former state education agency employees, considering that the decision to set a SPED target was made 12 years.

Rosenthal had a team behind him that did a lot of the data analysis. The story took roughly six months to produce. Running down alternative explanations took an enormous effort, he said. “We went through a long process trying to figure out if there was any other reason. We simply couldn’t find one.”

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This 2004 chart suggesting the 8.5 percent target (pictured above) is chilling in how mundane it looks. And yet, according the Chronicle, the inclusion of the target in the state school rating system (look at the green column) set off a cascade of events that’s continued largely unchecked until now.

One important point to keep in mind is that this is what can happen in a public system when extra support services are legally mandated by federal law. This should make you wonder what can go wrong when we’re talking about general education programs like ESSA where federal law is less prescriptive and parents don’t have any individual federal legal recourse.

Another point worth keeping in mind is that this isn’t something that’s happening in any particular sector of the K-12 system. Charters were included in the story and may have have lower percentages of SPED students in some or many cases, but this is a state, district, and traditional school district issue as much or more than anything else.

The paper has reported several followups since the original piece came out. The state is reviewing the matter and the USDE is looking into it as well). The Chronicle is planning more on the same topic.

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Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.