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Are Students With Disabilities Being Denied Special Education in Texas?

by David Edward DeMatthews, Barbara L. Pazey & Becca Gregory - January 23, 2017

The Texas Education Agency has a special education monitoring protocol known as the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System that awards districts a perfect score on an indicator if fewer than 8.5% of students receive special education. This protocol has been the center of debate in the state and for the U.S. Department of Education. This commentary examines this system, state level data, and parent and educator testimonials presented in the media.

Education researchers have long been concerned with the misidentification of students resulting from flawed assessments, poorly trained personnel, a lack of effective early interventions, and racial, linguistic, or socioeconomic bias (Artiles, 2011; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Sullivan & Bal, 2013). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) permits the use of early intervention processes based on a child’s response to research-based interventions with the underlying intent of addressing the misidentification of students into special education. IDEA also includes a Child Find provision ([39_21804.htm_g/00002.jpg]300.111). This requires states to proactively locate, identify, and evaluate all children with disabilities. However, a 2004 Texas Education Agency (TEA) policy appears antithetical to IDEA and has potentially contributed to denied services to thousands of students. TEA implemented a monitoring protocol known as the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS). PBMAS awarded districts a perfect score if fewer than 8.5% of their students received special education services (Houston Chronicle, 2016).

The lead authors of this commentary are university faculty members with public school special education experiences at both the district and campus levels. The third author is a doctoral student and the parent of a child with autism in Texas public schools. We are infuriated by PBMAS, especially given our own professional experiences, mounting educator and parent testimonials, and considerable state and district data suggesting wrongdoing. We call on researchers and advocates to assess the impact of PBMAS and inform new policies. As a result, we provide evidence to support our argument and conclude with research recommendations.

An overview of student data suggests Texas is not in full compliance with its Child Find obligations. The Houston Chronicle reported that 96% of Texas districts reduced their special education rates since 2004 (Rosenthal, 2016). Texas currently has the lowest percentage of students identified under IDEA (6.5%). The present national average is approximately 13% according to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE, 2016b). Between 2008 and 2014, Texas saw an 8.4% decrease in students served under IDEA (USDOE, 2016c). However, national eligibility in special education rose by 1.6% during this same period. Our analysis of TEA data reveals that four of the state's largest school districts (e.g., Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio) show similar decreases in special education enrollment after 2004 and through 2015-16. Figure 1 plots the percentage of students enrolled in special education from 2003-04 to 2015-16 for these districts and the overall state average. Houston’s population of students with disabilities decreased from 10% in 2003-04 to 7.2% in 2015-16, equivalent to about a 25% reduction. Other large urban districts outside of Texas report different percentages (e.g., New York City Department of Education, 20.4%; District of Columbia Public Schools, 15%; Chicago Public Schools, 13.6%). While there is no consensus regarding what percentage of students should be in special education, a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 15.4% of children ages 2-8 have been diagnosed by doctors with mental, behavioral, or developmental disorders (Bitsko et al., 2016).

Figure 1. Percentage of students with disabilities by district and state over time


Additional statewide evidence suggests Child Find issues are linked to TEA policies. The Texas AFT’s (2016) statewide survey of teacher perceptions of special education classification concludes:

Some 59% of survey respondents said under-identifying children with special needs is a problem in their school district. In addition to a lack of adequate resources, especially a lack of skilled staff to meet student needs, respondents cited state and local pressures to limit the number of students receiving Special Education services and other factors like excessive paperwork and testing delays (also related to understaffing) that result in many students awaiting evaluations for special education services or being denied those services altogether.

Lawmakers have also questioned TEA policy. In October 2016, Texas Republican House Speaker Joe Straus urged TEA to immediately change its system for identifying students with disabilities. The lead authors of this article have listened to graduate students working as teachers refer to the special education cap. We have also even witnessed a district administrator discuss the special education cap during a graduate course focused on special education and school leadership.

In a Houston Chronicle investigation titled “Denied: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education,” reporter Brian Rosenthal (2016) relied on numerous interviews, state documents, and district documents. Rosenthal interviewed a teacher in the Tyler Independent School District (ISD) who said, “[w]e were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs.” The Fort Bend ISD special education director was troubled by the low rate of students with disabilities and noted, “[i]t’s something that’s always [in] the back of your mind . . . You’re being graded.” The special education director in Seguin ISD said, “[w]e live and die by compliance . . . You can ask any special ed director; they’ll say the same thing. We do what the TEA tells us.” In Gatesville ISD, Rosenthal found that a 2010 Continuous Improvement Plan states, “[n]o referral may proceed without documentation that RTI has been fully implemented.” These statements are not aligned to IDEA and contradict expectations articulated in a Dear Colleague letter issued to State Directors of Special Education (Musgrove, 2011). It reminds them of their “obligation to ensure evaluations of children suspected of having a disability are not delayed or denied because of implementation of an RTI strategy” (para 1).

National Public Radio reported earlier this year that former TEA commissioner Mike Moses (from 1995-99) stated, “[i]t just doesn’t seem to me we would likely see a decrease in the number of special education children” (NPR, 2016). In that same story, Kym Rogers of Disability Rights Texas stated, “I think districts are under a lot of pressure to comply with the state cap that’s been put into place by TEA.” On December 13, 2016, numerous parents in the Rio Grande Valley addressed a USDOE panel. It was touring Texas to hear about families’ experiences with special education as part of an investigation. According to the Texas Tribune, parents “claimed that school districts definitely misunderstood the federal law requiring them to give individualized services to all eligible students with disabilities” (Swaby, 2016). A parent advocate told the panel, “[y]ou can be the most well-prepared parent, the most well-prepared activist, and you’re still going to hit a wall” (Swaby, 2016). The department also created a blog where parents could share their stories. Over 240 responses have been added as of December 16, 2016. The majority of respondents have been sharing negative stories about identification processes, denials of service, or poor service quality (USDOE, 2016a).

TEA has claimed PBMAS was not intended to cap special education services. Instead, they argue PBMAS has not decreased special education enrollment. However, TEA recently released a document titled, “Reminder about Important District Responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” It highlights Child Find responsibilities and reiterates PBMAS was not a sanction (TEA, 2016a). In a letter responding to USDOE questions about PBMAS, TEA made the following statements:

“the allegation that the special education representation indicator is designed to reduce special education enrollment in order to reduce the amount of money the state has to spend on special education is clearly false” (TEA, 2016a, p. 2).

“TEA does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities despite the fact that the article [Rosenthal, 2016] stated that several hundred interviews were conducted and records from several school districts were reviewed” (TEA, 2016a, p. 2).

“TEA has never set a cap, limit, or policy on the number or percent of students that districts can, or should, serve in special education. The special education representation indicator in PBMAS has never been tied to an absolute standard or goal” (TEA, 2016a, p. 4).

Researchers must be involved in protecting students with disabilities and their families. TEA and Texas saved millions of dollars by not providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to thousands of students for more than a decade. While TEA contends PBMAS is not about funding, the Texas school finance system has been challenged numerous times in court. It is also consistently rated as one of the most regressive and least equitable systems in the nation (Baker, Sciarra, & Farrie, 2015). Moreover, TEA has a history of unresponsiveness to district violations of federal laws, most recently documented in the El Paso ISD cheating scandal that continued for years despite warnings (El Paso Times, 2016).

While TEA should be responsible for conducting a large-scale audit of district practices and identifying students with disabilities who have been denied special education, researchers must also play an active role. Research is needed to further examine district-level practices across the state with a focus on those with high and low percentages of students with disabilities. Researchers should also examine how district and campus administrators made sense of PBMAS and other related accountability policies. They should also investigate how the state’s culture of accountability and TEA-district relationships shaped the perceptions of PBMAS and the under-identification of students with disabilities. Researchers should further investigate the preparation and professional development provided to district administrators, campus administrators, and teachers with the purpose of identifying areas of weakness in understanding and implementing IDEA. Finally, researchers and advocates must collectively work together to disseminate the appropriate information to educators and ensure IDEA is fully implemented. Without a collective effort, TEA and districts across Texas may continue to deny students with disabilities their federally protected rights to FAPE.


Artiles, A. J. (2011). Toward an interdisciplinary understanding of educational equity and difference. The case of the racialization of ability. Educational Researcher, 40(9), 431–445.

Baker, B. D., Sciarra, D. G., & Farrie, D. (2015). Is school funding fair? A national report card. Newark, NJ: Education Law Center.

Bitsko, R. H., Holbrook, J. R., Robinson, L. R., Kaminski, J. W., Ghandour, R., Smith, C., & Peacock, G. (2016). Health care, family, and community factors associated with mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders in early childhood – United States, 2011–2012. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(9), 221–226. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6509a1.htm

El Paso Times (2016, April 27). EPISD cheating scandal timeline. El Paso Times. Retrieved from http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/special-reports/episdcheating/2016/04/27/timeline-episd-cheating-scheme/83625500/

Harry, B., & Klingner, J. (2014). Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race & disability in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Houston Chronicle. (2016). The Texas special education enrollment target as introduced in 2004. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3105621-Target-Sped-Percentage-Introduced-in-2004.html#document/p2

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108–446 (2004).

Musgrove, M. (2011, January). A response to intervention (RTI) process cannot be used to delay-deny an evaluation for eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Memo 11–07 Response to Intervention (RTI). Office of Special Education Programs. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/osep11-07rtimemo.pdf

National Public Radio (2016, October 21). Texas may be denying tens of thousands of children special education. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/21/496943376/texas-may-be-denying-tens-of-thousands-of-children-special-education

Rosenthal, B. M. (2016). Denied: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.houstonchronicle.com/denied/1/

Sullivan, A. L., & Bal, A. (2013). Disproportionality in special education: Effects of individual and school variables on disability risk. Exceptional Children, 79(4), 475–494.

Swaby, A. (2016, December 14). South Texas parents, advocates claim school districts withheld special ed. The Texas Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2016/12/14/south-texas-parents-advocates-claim-districts-with/

Texas American Federation of Teachers (2016, December 16). Special education survey highlights the harmful results of underfunding our schools. Retrieved from http://www.texasaft.org/special-education-survey-highlights-harmful-results-underfunding-schools/

Texas Education Agency (2016a, November 2). Letter to honorable Sue Swenson, Acting Assistant Secretary. Austin, TX: Author. Retrieved from http://www.tea.texas.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=51539611313

Texas Education Agency (2016b, November 17). Reminder about important district responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Austin, TX: Author.

U.S. Department of Education (2016a). Texas listening sessions. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Blog. Retrieved from http://sites.ed.gov/osers/2016/11/texas-listening-sessions/

U.S. Department of Education (2016b). Percent children with disabilities: 2013-2014. ED Data Express. Retrieved from http://eddataexpress.ed.gov/data-element-explorer.cfm/tab/data/deid/5/sort/idown/

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs. (2016c). 34th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2012, Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/2012/parts-b-c/34th-idea-arc.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 23, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21804, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 12:40:56 PM

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About the Author
  • David DeMatthews
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    DAVID EDWARD DeMATTHEWS is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research explores issues related to school leadership, urban education, special education, and social justice.
  • Barbara Pazey
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA L. PAZEY is an Assistant Professor in the departments of special education and educational administration at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on inclusive urban education and disability policy.
  • Becca Gregory
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author

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