Teachers: TEA’s Special Education Cuts Are Hurting Our Classrooms

The federal government has ordered Texas to end a policy that significantly dropped special education enrollment, unless it can prove its program has not denied a single student the help they need. A Houston Chronicle investigation found hundreds of thousands of students may have been turned away. Our Stef Manisero spoke with teachers about how the changes have translated to the classroom.

“You feel defeated at times as a teacher because you want to meet every child’s needs and you just can’t,” said Patty Candelaria, a first grade teacher at Langford Elementary school.

In her 18 years leading a classroom, Candelaria has learned a thing or two about kids.

Last year, she identified eight of her 21 first graders as needing special learning assistance — all within the first two weeks of class.

“It could be reversal of letters, it could be just not knowing the alphabet — the letters in the alphabet, even as far as holding a book upside down,” Candelaria said.

But none of those students received special help.

Instead, Patty watched as they grew frustrated.

“Like, ‘Oh I can’t do this and so sometimes they give up,’” she said.

A general education teacher with a curriculum to stick to, she also had to make sure the other 13 students weren't falling behind.

“And so you’re kind of like tag-teaming — I need these students to get extra support, these students need this, but then these students are reading above grade level, so you want to meet the needs,” Candelaria said.

It wasn't always this way.

In 2004, the Texas Education Agency quietly created a system that effectively capped special education enrollment.

RELATED: Thousands of Texas Children Secretly Denied Special Education, Federal Order Exposes

While not required by law, districts are penalized if more than 8.5 percent of the student body is enrolled.

“I think it completely goes against what special ed was created for to begin with,” said Tammy O’Higgens Edwards, Chair of the Special Education Department at Lanier High School. “Special ed was designed to give individualized special services to students based on need.”

Edwards, a high school special education teacher of 17 years, has seen first-hand the benefits of one-on-one attention.

But in the last 12 years, Texas special ed enrollment dropped from 12 percent —  right on par with the national average — to 8.5 percent — the lowest in the country.

That's a difference of 225,000 students.

“They can’t access the full range of curriculum without somebody going in and kind of filling those gaps in for them,” Edwards said.

While the TEA denies raising the threshold to drop enrollment, the cap reportedly saved the state billions.

“I would like to know where that money is going, I would love to see it in the classrooms and going back to instruction materials so we can help our students,” said Candelaria. “If you can identify in first (grade), think about how much better they’re going to be in second, and in third, and fourth.”

The TEA did not grant us an interview for this story, but in a statement said:

TEA is working with special education advisory groups for feedback and guidance on all aspects of special education policy. Commissioner Morath continues to discuss this specific issue with parents and educators throughout the state. He is committed to ensuring those students who qualify for special education services get them.

The Education Department gave the TEA 30 days to respond. That response is expected by Thursday.