Currently Texas has the lowest number of special education students in the nation. After peaking in the early 2000s, it fell dramatically, falling from about 12% of the student population to around 8%, well below the national average.[i] Although numbers are also dropping nationally, the particularly dramatic dip in Texas has led many to wonder whether Texas is taking advantage of the more subjective nature of some disabilities to meet new budget restrictions.[ii]

Naturally these accusations have caused some flurry amongst administrators. Gene Lenz, a representative of the Texas Education Agency, responded that the lowered numbers are simply Texas reacting to over-classification amongst these groups.[iii] He states, “[N]othing seems more inappropriate to me than to place a child into special education when they don't have a disability.”

This suggests that Texas, and indeed the nation, are merely responding to inflated numbers. However, when examined, the state’s numbers do not drop proportionately to the national numbers.[iv] In fact, Texas peaked in 1999-1998 at 12.26% while nationally numbers rose until 2006-2005 when they reached 13.57%, but then diverged drastically, Texas falling to its current 8.8% compared to the national 12.87%.[v]

This disparity seems to imply that either the rest of the nation is still vastly over-classifying these students, or that Texas is actually over-reacting to the peak. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals a more telling picture. Utilizing data requested from the TEA, a chart showing the number of special education students by specific disability can be assembled which offers more insight.  

It is clear after looking at the numbers that a decline in Learning Disabilities (LD) is the root of the state’s discrepancy. Isolating this group shows that Texas once peaked above the national percentage of LD students, at 6.4% to the national 6.1%, but then falling well below at 3.1% compared to the national 4.9%.[vi] LDs are one of the more subjective classifications of special education, with medical diagnoses being taken into account in the determination, but primary focus being put on teacher observation and anecdotal evidence.[vii]

This subjective nature lends itself to either of the accusations being made. Some argue that over-classification occurred originally, which is more likely for a group that depends on anecdotal evidence. Others complain that the state is using the subjective nature of Learning Disabilities to reclassify students and lower expenses garnered by special education.[viii]

It is unclear which is the case. But in either event, there are steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage this causes to children with learning disabilities. For example, the subjective nature of the diagnosis seems to be working against the community by allowing either over-classification or manipulation. One possibility would be to involve more medical input, thereby lowering the manipulability of the classification. Currently a determination of learning disabilities is made using information such as statewide assessment results, formal evaluation test scores, informal data and anecdotal reports. Lowering the reliance on subjective measures and increasing medical input will help prevent over-classification or manipulation.

In addition or in place of this, increasing parental choice in education is advisable. It is difficult to determine whether charter schools are also affected by this disparity, because their system is less centralized, and is affected by underreporting.[ix] However, charters have an edge on public education in that they can specialize to a greater extent, providing more tailored care for special education students. [x]

In addition to an increase in charters, blended learning would allow online programs to remove some of the cost incentives to declassify students, while increasing options for teachers of special education.[xi]

It appears likely that Texas public schools could improve its classification of students with learning disabilities. The cause of the problem is still uncertain, but there are steps that can be taken to safeguard the population without this certainty.

[i] Jennifer Radcliffe, “Experts can’t explain drop in state’s special education numbers,” Houston Chronicle, (July 4, 2012).

[ii] Radcliffe, (2012).

[iii] Radcliffe.

[iv] Texas Education Agency, “Enrollment in Texas Public Schools 2011-2012” Department of Research and Analysis, (2012).

[v] Data compiled using NCES’s ElSi Table Generator.

[vi] Radcliffe.

[vii] Division of Federal and State Education Policy, “Evaluation of Learning Disability (LD) Eligibility,” Texas Education Agency, (2013).

[viii] Radcliffe, (2012).

[ix] Caroline M. Hoxby, Jenny Lee Kang, Sonali Murarka, “Technical Report: How New York City Charter Schools Affect Achievement,” National Bureau of Economic Research, (September 2009).

[x] Julie F. Mead, “Charter Schools Designed for Students with Disabilities: An Initial Examination of Issues and Questions Raised,” University of Wisconsin-Madison, (January 2008).

[xi] Nirvi Shah, “E-Learning Expands for Special-Needs Students,” Education Week, (August 22, 2011).