STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many parents in Texas say they tried and failed to get their struggling children access to special education. And now they may know why. New revelations indicate that the state has arbitrarily capped special education enrollment at 8.5 percent. Here's Bill Zeeble with our member station KERA in Dallas.
BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: That percentage, the lowest of any state in the country, doesn't make sense to Mike Moses. He was the Texas education commissioner from 1995 to 1999.
MIKE MOSES: It just doesn't seem to me that we would likely see a decrease in the number of special education children. At one time, we had a state average of probably 11 or 12 percent.
ZEEBLE: Moses says the number of low birthweight babies, teen pregnancies, kids in poverty - not to mention the entire Texas student population - has only grown. What's shrunk is the state's special education enrollment - down to 8.5 percent. The national average - 13 percent. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that low percentage was picked arbitrarily, chosen to cut costs.
ROSLY ESPINOZA: (Speaking Spanish).
ZEEBLE: Rosly Espinoza may be paying the price. In pre-kindergarten, her daughter, Citlali, seemed distracted and sometimes acted out. She speaks through translator Maria Sanchez.
ESPINOZA: (Through interpreter) It all, you know, started with school issues, lack of interest, teachers' notes...
ZEEBLE: Espinoza asked school officials to evaluate her daughter. But they didn't. In second grade, she says, things got worse.
ESPINOZA: (Through interpreter) She stopped paying attention in class - harassing other children. In some occasions, she would yell. So at some point, it did cause her stress and depression.
ZEEBLE: And those were some of the symptoms that led a doctor to diagnose Citlali with several disorders and prescribe her medication. The school offered counseling - but still no additional education services in the classroom.
District reports show Citlali was extremely smart but remained aggressive and continued hitting classmates while struggling with school. Frustrated, Espinoza got an attorney. Kym Rogers with the advocacy organization Disability Rights Texas says the child finally got evaluated.
KYM ROGERS: Because I requested it.
ZEEBLE: Rogers says it shouldn't have taken a lawyer's note for an evaluation but believes the paper trail forced action.
ROGERS: Every school district has an obligation to identify students who are eligible for special education. And they're not to just wait for a parent request for an evaluation. If there's reason to suspect there's a disability, the school district has an obligation to do that evaluation.
ZEEBLE: An obligation by law - after Citlali's evaluation, the district agreed she qualified for special education with an emotional disturbance in Lancaster, south of Dallas, where Citlali goes to school. The district's special education enrollment is 7.8 percent. Rogers believes that evaluation was delayed to keep Citlali from receiving those services.
ROGERS: I think that districts are under a lot of pressure to comply with TEA.
ZEEBLE: Lancaster school officials said in an email that there was no pressure from the Texas Education Agency, and the district does what's best for children. Meanwhile, federal officials are asking the TEA to explain and justify its 8.5 percent benchmark and show that no qualified students were denied special education services. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas.
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