“Denied: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Children Out of Special Education”

Houston Chronicle
September 11, 2016

houston chronicle logo

In 2004, the Texas Education Agency, facing a $1.1 billion state budget cut, decided that the state districts should not give special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. The decision was arbitrary – no research has found 8.5 percent to be ideal, and the national average has remained at 13 percent for years. But the agency nonetheless began punishing districts for exceeding the “standard.” The policy was embedded in a highly technical monitoring system for districts and ultimately published deep inside the Texas Register, a little-known state agency journal. No other state had ever set a target for special education enrollment – and for a dozen years no one outside a tight circle of state officials and school administrators even knew it existed. Many teachers felt they were being pressured to keep kids out of special education, but they didn’t know why. Even state lawmakers and federal officials didn’t know about the benchmark, which came to function as a de facto cap. And parents certainly didn’t have a clue. Until Brian M. Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle came along.

Brian had been tipped off about the benchmark by an advocate who had discovered the policy and complained to the state that it could be forcing schools to keep disabled kids out of special education. The state’s response was, “prove it.” The advocate couldn’t, or didn’t. Brian Rosenthal did, first by assembling and analyzing millions of lines of data that showed that after the benchmark took effect, special education enrollments in Texas fell from 12 percent – near the national average – down to exactly 8.5 percent, the lowest in the nation. In a state of 5 million public school students, that difference translated to 200,000 fewer children getting critical services. Then by obtaining thousands of pages of “Corrective Action Plans” that districts were required to file detailing how they were curtailing special ed services. And, finally, by interviewing over 1,000 people about their experiences with the system, including 323 current and former educators and 391 parents whose stories about how schools denied their children services became powerfully confirming – and tragically commonplace.

Once the secret was out, the response was immediate and overwhelming. The day after Part 1 of “Denied” ran on the front page of the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, September 11, 2016, the vice chair of the State Board of Education, a Republican, led a chorus of outrage, saying the damage of the target was “immeasurable.” Leading lawmakers of both parties drafted legislation to end the benchmark. Three weeks after publication, the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to end the policy unless it could show that no children had been harmed. The Texas Education Agency denied that kids had been hurt, but a month later, it suspended the target and vowed to soon eliminate it permanently. The fallout continued, however, as the U.S. Department of Education launched an unprecedented and still-ongoing investigation and several of the biggest school districts in the state – including the Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School District – hired independent auditors to evaluate their special education operations.

By the time federal education officials arrived in Texas in early December 2016 for a series of “listening sessions” with parents, educators and advocates, hundreds of parents had posted stories on the Chronicle’s website about battles they’d waged, often unsuccessfully, with special ed bureaucrats. Many expressed deep gratitude for Brian’s work. “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” reader Jennifer Ayres wrote to Brian in an email. “Your investigation explains what we didn’t understand about our own experience with a special needs child.” Saran Pollan, another reader, wrote to say “I cannot tell you how alone and isolated I feel. Your article made me feel like maybe I’m not the only one fighting an uphill battle.” Joni Richards wrote in the subject line of her email: “Finally! Hallelujah! Thank you! Thank you! This grandma has not lived in vain.” Liz Stephens said, “I’m sitting here in tears.” And reader Frances Louis said simply, “You are my hero.”

Inspired by the parents who have fought so hard for so long, and gratified that a quarter of a million disabled children in Texas may now get the help that they are guaranteed by federal law, it is our privilege to nominate Brian M. Rosenthal for the 2016 Headliner’s Foundation of Texas Showcase Award for Enterprise & Innovation in Journalism.

(The link goes to the “Denied” project homepage, which has all seven main installments as well as several sidebars, videos and photos and all of the data and documents at the center of the project.)

LINK to content online

Video Interview with Investigative Reporter Brian Rosenthal

Submitted by Maria Carillo and Brian Rosenthal.