Nicole France, Coordinator within SAC's Office of Outreach & Recruitment, reads to Will Rogers Elementary students on May 4, 2016 to promote SAC’s Wild About Reading Program, a new initiative to promote literacy in SAC’ “backyard.” Photo courtesy of San Antonio College.

The chronic underfunding of special education on the federal level, and public education in general on the State level, have led the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to enact policies that many say harm Texas children. Worse, they’re said to harm the most vulnerable children – those with learning disabilities.

Specialized instruction can set struggling students on a path to graduation and future success. It’s also expensive.

To get that instruction, students need to be diagnosed, and the people entrusted with evaluating their needs have been pressured to do what they can to avoid diagnosing demonstrated learning disabilities. The result: Thousands of Texas children are currently being denied the special educations services to which they are entitled.

An article in the Houston Chronicle exposed that the TEA has been encouraging schools to set a goal of 8.5% special education enrollment. That’s 4.5 percentage points below the national average of 13%.

Since the goal was set, Texas enrollment in special education has fallen, presumably under the auspices of reducing over-identification. Communities with high rates of poverty usually see more learning specialty diagnoses due to poor prenatal health, parent education, and environmental factors. One in four Texas children live in poverty, above the national average of 22%.

According to Ed O’Neill, a special education consultant, it is highly unlikely that the number of Texas children in need of special education has or will decrease. Rather, fewer children are getting the help they need, a disparity that has been exacerbated by the state’s high poverty rate.

The enrollment goal, the Houston Chronicle report found, was arbitrary.

TEA Special Education Deputy Director Cathy Clayton told the Houston Chronicle how the TEA arrived at 8.5% as a goal in 2004 when Texas’ enrollment rate was at 12%.

“Well, it was set at a little bit of a reach,” she said. “Any time you set a goal, you want to make it a bit of a reach because you’re trying to move the number.”

The problem with this particular number, according to educators and experts, is that it is budget driven, not reality driven. In reality, schools can’t “move the number” of students who have learning specialities. They can only serve them, which is what the State is telling them not to do.

“If we’re not identifying kids, were not getting them the support and the services they need,” O’Neill said.

According to State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), TEA showed its hand when it set out to lower the enrollment rate. 

“TEA doesn’t want us to have higher special needs numbers in our schools because they don’t want to spend the money,” he said.

According to O’Neill, states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, which are considered leaders in public education, have special education enrollment rates above the national average.

While it’s easy to direct blame at districts and even the TEA for their hand in suppressing the diagnoses, Menéndez said, the buck stops with the legislature. 

“This is a pressure that TEA should not be feeling,” he added.

Menéndez intends to write a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath asking for clarification on the benchmark goal. For him, the legislature bears a huge portion of the responsibility to make the situation right, beginning with the 2017 legislative session.

“School finance is the No. 1 issue for me because we’re starting to see the net impact of underfunding education on every level,” Menéndez said.

O’Neill pointed to underfunding at the federal level as well.

“Special education on a national level has never been fully funded,” he explained. “States make up all the money.”

The issue, O’Neill pointed out, gets even more complicated in the environment of scarcity. Middle class and higher income families can more easily advocate for or even pursue legal action to get the services to which they are legally entitled. What limited funds exist are channelled away from students whose families cannot or do not know how to go to such lengths.

When O’Neill requested to have his daughter screened in her Northside ISD school, the school offered what is called a Section 504 evaluation. Oftentimes, 504 evaluations take the place of special education screenings because they are less expensive to implement. They do not, however, offer the same benefits as special education.

Because both O’Neill and his wife work in education, they know how to advocate for their daughter. He said if he and his wife hadn’t been so informed on the law, they would have accepted the school district’s response to their request.

Eventually the O’Neills, like many parents in their situation, turned to Assessment Intervention Management (AIM), a private assessment company. In addition to providing private assessments and screenings, AIM helps families navigate the process of receiving services through the public school system.

“It wasn’t an accident that we had AIM evaluate our daughter,” O’Neill said.

The O’Neills were fortunate to have the means and knowledge to get the help their daughter needs. It took nine months of follow up, but they got it.

Other students are not as fortunate and struggle in classrooms where a learning disability is just one of many factors stacked against them. Instead of specialized instruction, O’Neill said, they are told to just “work harder” or “focus.” Even if teachers suspect something is amiss, there’s not much they can do when the system avoids providing the necessary services and resources.

The suppression of special education services is a disservice to all Texas children. For some, however, it is an educational death sentence.

“If we ignore that need related to learning,” O’Neill said, “we’re setting that kid up to fail.”

Top image: Nicole France, Coordinator within SAC’s Office of Outreach & Recruitment, reads to Will Rogers Elementary students on May 4, 2016 to promote SAC’s Wild About Reading Program, a new initiative to promote literacy in SAC’ “backyard.”  Photo courtesy of San Antonio College.  

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.