On Sept 29, 2020, TEA (Texas Education Agency) made public their bombshell final report on Houston ISD’s special education system.  The report contains 44 pages of explanation followed by 45 pages listing the legal statutes related to special education that Houston ISD failed to comply with.

This report finds that HISD has violated special education requirements. This noncompliance is significant, systemic, and widespread. The findings of this investigation mirror the significant shortcomings documented by the District dating back at least a decade with the release of the Hehir Report. The 2011 Hehir Report, the AIR Report published in 2018, and the 2018 Ad Hoc Committee report were conducted at the request of HISD leadership. (pg 42)

Because the investigation found repeated evidence of systemic issues dating back to at least 2011 that the district has failed to take equally systemic steps to remediate. . .

TEA sustains the findings in its preliminary report and maintains the recommendation of appointing a conservator who will work with HISD to identify the issues that led to non-compliance and report to the agency on the development and implementation of a plan to address the issue in accordance with TEC §§39.057(d), 39A.001(2), and 39A.002(7). (pg 43)

 The report immediately authorizes the Texas Education Commission to appoint a Conservator with

. . .  duties and powers. . . . expansive enough to direct all areas affecting, or affected by, special education, even if not made immediately obvious by its name. (emphasis added).(pg 44)

Students receiving special education services, in most cases, receive substantial services in the general education setting. General education teachers provide necessary accommodations. Campus administrators head ARD committees and ultimately hold their respective employees accountable for child find and providing services. District level officials must allow for appropriate campus staffing; transportation leaders must ensure specialized transportation; and the superintendent and area superintendents must ultimately hold campuses accountable for their performance as it relates to these issues. The ability of the conservator to direct these, and other similar areas, is required in order to effectuate necessary change. (pg 43)

The report recommends that

the following general needs to be addressed by the Conservator:

1) address the confusion and the inconsistent implementation of processes related to intervention and special education identification;

2) address the communication regarding and the implementation of new policies and procedures;

3) ensure that IEPs are individualized for students;

4) address issues of decentralization; and

5) ensure that parents are involved in making decisions related to their students’ services.(pg 44)

Usually TEA takes a very minimalist approach to their recommended corrective actions for substantiated complaints.  Perhaps they wrote such a strongly worded report because OSERS, the federal department which oversees the implementation of IDEA, has cited Texas as a state which needs assistance for implementing special ed services.

While parents are generally nodding in agreement to these conclusions, the report tries to head off anticipated objections from the district by stating:

Further, State intervention does not constitute a punishment, but instead represents a necessary tool intended to allow the Agency to fulfill its legal obligation to ensure that districts comply with relevant laws. (pg 13)

So what did Houston ISD do that was so wrong?  When it comes to special ed, almost everything.  They weren’t:

  • Identifying children with disabilities
  • Placing non-disabled minority children in special education
  • Providing them with comprehensive evaluations
  • Providing school funded independent evaluations if the parent disagreed
  • Developing or implementing IEPs that addressed all areas of need
  • Providing identified services and supports
  • Providing training and support to the teachers and staff expected to provide the services and supports
  • Monitoring IEP progress with data
  • Keeping enough data to make decisions
  • Respecting the decisions of the ARD committee when it came to placement decisions—principals and administrative staff were often allowed to reject committee placement decisions

It’s hard to fully understand the impact of special education if you don’t have child in special education.  Millions of dollars of tax dollars are given to school districts to provide special education services.  These services are provided with the goal of giving the student with a disability enough skills so they can

  • Live independently
  • Continue their education
  • Work in the community

The differences that the right services can make in a student’s life are significant and life changing.  These services can make the difference between a student

  • succeeding in finding their place in the community or failing:
  • with a learning disability like dyslexia going to college or going to jail.
  • With autism learning how to get along socially or be bullied to the point of committing suicide
  • With ADD to learn the organization skills he needs to finish a college program or fail
  • With emotional or mental health issues becoming stabile or needing hospitalization
  • With medical issues like CP, Down’s, or seizure disorder finding acceptance in the community or being isolated or more.

My son received special ed services in Houston ISD from 2006 to 2012.   I had to advocate fiercely for the services and supports he needed, but I finally realized that the district just wouldn’t be able to meet his needs.   In 2012 I sat down with a competent and sympathetic administrator, and we went through every single high school placement Houston ISD offered.  Not a single one would have met my son’s needs.  We filed a successful due process against the district to receive the services he needed at a private placement.

As far back as 2006, I personally experienced many of the issues that were raise in the report including:

  • Child Find evaluation problems
  • District staff not understanding how to draft an IEP
  • My son’s IEP not being implemented—especially in the area of his behavior implementation plan
  • Getting an IEE paid for by the district (I gave up after a year of trying)
  • Principals not having a clue as to their roles or responsibilities under IDEA
  • Lack of standard procedures from the district in monitoring IEP implementation
  • Lack of the full continuum of special ed services at the secondary level
  • Lack of support and training for general ed teachers who have students with an IEP in their classroom

And I have records of my efforts, as well as the efforts of many other parent advocates, to bring these issues to the attention of district leaders as early as 2006.

The tragic part is that every parent I know with a child in Houston ISD in special ed can tell a story similar to mine.  This is why I created an on-line course to train parents in basic special education advocacy.  Even as an advocate, the need is too great to be able to help everyone in person.

While some people reading this will raise a cry that this report proves private schools should receive federal funding, I strongly disagree.

You see, I’ve done it all with my son.  Private school, public school, home school, residential school.  The biggest difference between private school and public school is that parents and children have no rights in private school.   The private school requires parents to give up their rights as a part of the contract with the school.

And if you think you have rights in a private school, wait until you have a dispute with them.  The only option you have as a parent is to leave—unless you are a wealthy donor and can buy the school’s cooperation.   Unless private schools stop requiring parents to sign away their and their child’s rights in their admissions contracts, they are usually worse for children with disabilities with a few exceptions. I have the scars to prove it.

The report also recognizes

. . . . no one sole person, program, or provider . . malignantly influenced the special education program in the District, …(pg 43)

High employee turnover was also expressed as a problem in HISD. Training is provided to employees, and then they leave. The lack of expertise with school leaders relating to special education is a result of turnover and systemic communication breakdown. (pg 41)

And sadly, I saw this too during my son’s time in the district.  Time and time again, good, caring, competent teachers, speech pathologists, social workers, school psychologists, board certified behavior analysts, music therapists, and administrators left the district because of their frustration with being assigned case loads that were too large or trying to get support from a system that didn’t work.  This system prevented them from helping students in ways they knew they could.  My strongest advocacy efforts were usually centered on getting my son’s teacher the help they needed in the classroom to do their job.

I really hope that the conservator will be able to create some systemic change in HISD.  But HISD’s initial response to the report has not been promising.  As a taxpayer, I do not support any of their efforts to fight this conservator.  However, the key to change is noted in the report

Success when providing special education services depends upon institutional buy-in on all levels and further depends on the administrative prioritization of these services far beyond those of individuals possessing special education titles.(pg 12)

I hope the administration can prioritize student needs over their own pride and ego.  Time will tell.

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