Cap hits English learners hardest, cites Paul Morgan's research

Immigrants less able to overcome special ed barriers

Houston Chronicle Sunday
11 Dec 2016
By Brian M. Rosenthal

VICTORIA — Refugees, immigrants and other kids who do not speak English are entitled to the same special education services as native speakers. But in this Southeast Texas city, they seldom get them.

Just 39 of the nearly 1,000 English Language Learners here receive services like tutoring, counseling and speech therapy, 70 percent fewer per capita than a decade ago.

Many more need help, but usually, teachers say, their pleas are ignored.

“It’s almost impossible to get my kids into special ed,” said Arlene De Los Santos of Patti Welder Middle School. “They have to have very, very severe needs for the school to even consider it.”

The situation in Victoria exemplifies a new reality playing out across Texas.

From Beaumont to El Paso, school districts facing pressure to lower their special education numbers have decided to do it by shutting out thousands of English Language Learners, the Houston Chronicle has found.

Districts have used a range of tactics, from refusing to conduct eligibility evaluations in other languages or accept medical records from other countries to blaming language barriers for problems caused by disabilities, according to data and interviews with dozens of current and former educators. Some have eliminated special education altogether from schools for international students.

Many districts have even held trainings to warn teachers that English learners are over-identified in special education, when statistics show the opposite is true.

The moves have taken place as immigration politics have become increasingly sensitive in Texas. Most English learners were born in the United States, studies show, but many have parents who are not American citizens.

The revelations add a civil rights dimension to the controversy over the Texas Education Agency’s decision to set a special education enrollment target.

Statewide, only 7.3 percent of English learners now get special education, compared to 8.7 percent for native speakers. That 20 percent difference is three times higher than the gap that existed when the target began in 2004.

“Even if the policy was not meant to be discriminatory, it has clearly had that effect,” said Gary Orfield, a prominent longtime social scientist and co-founder of The Civil Rights Project while at Harvard University, who called it the most outrageous education policy he’s ever seen. “If schools are creating systems in which students are not getting services simply because of the language they speak, that’s discrimination.”

The TEA target, which the Chronicle revealed earlier this year, set 8.5 percent as the ideal maximum rate of students who should be in special education. Agency officials have audited school districts for exceeding the benchmark and penalized districts for over-identification of minorities. But they have not levied any punishments for under-identification.

As a result, Texas has lowered its overall special education rate from near the longtime national average of 13 percent to exactly 8.5 percent. That is the lowest of any state, by far.

If English Language Leaners were in special education at the same rate as they were in 2004, about 40,000 more of them would now be receiving those services.

The U.S. Department of Education, which is hosting public “listening sessions” in five Texas cities this week as part of an investigation into the issue, has said it is particularly concerned about the low number of English learners in special ed.

In defending the benchmark to federal regulators last month, TEA officials acknowledged “some possible under-representation” of English learners.

They declined to answer questions for this story.

When Karen Aramburu moved from Mexico to Houston two years ago, she thought she would get help for her daughter, then 11 and dealing with autism, epilepsy and hypotonia, a muscle disorder.

But when she asked the Houston Independent School District for special education, she was told there was a “waiting list” for eligibility evaluations.

Aramburu, who cares for her daughter full time while her husband works as a candy distributor, did not get any information about the process in the only language she speaks — Spanish. She did not know there was no such thing as a waiting list. Or that she could compel the district to evaluate her daughter by filing a written request. HISD, which provides special education to 7.4 percent of students and just 5.3 percent of English learners, did not tell her or perform an evaluation, even as Alexia got failing grades, cried throughout classes and had bathroom accidents, records show.

More than a year later, an advocate finally told Aramburu how to force HISD to do an evaluation, and Alexia was found eligible for extensive services.

“Nobody told meuntil it was so late,” Aramburu said in Spanish on a recent afternoon, grimacing as she gazed at her daughter. The family now lives in Katy.

An HISD spokesman said the district does give families information in Spanish and focuses on proper identification of disabled English learners.

Many educators said immigrants often do not understand how special ed works. Part of the reason for the dramatic drop among English learners, they said, is that parents are less able to fight the hurdles the TEA target has brought for all families seeking special education.

“These parents don’t understand the system,” said Iliana Benitez, a social worker at Baylor College of Medicine. “Culturally, they’re not inclined to speak up ... and nobody tells them they have rights.”

Many school districts have actively worked to keep English learners out of special education so they can keep their overall numbers low, the Chronicle has found.

Dozens of current and former educators said they were made to attend trainings in which they were told the TEAhad concluded they were over-identifying English learners. Virtually all those districts were actually underidentifying them, data show.

At the trainings, the educators said they were told to assume struggles of English learners were the result of language issues and to request special ed evaluations only for failures lasting months or years.

“They always try to pass off deficits as due to language and cultural barriers,” former Fort Worth teacher Megan Houston said. “So (the kids) have to fail classes to get tested, even when the teacher, counselor, principal, etc., all can tell it’s more than a language problem.”

Parents reported more subtle discrimination.

Rosa Sanchez of El Paso said that when she asked that her kindergartner be tested for dyslexia, Canutillo ISD refused and only gave her information on how to appeal in English.

Evangelina Cardenas of Pflugerville, in Central Texas, said that when she noticed her shy daughter was struggling in school, she asked to observe her in class to see if she should request special education. She said she was turned away because “only parents with Social Security numbers” can observe.

Her daughter, Ashley, fell further and further behind. The district warned the family about it in 2013, school records show, and she got a 24 percent on her first state math test.

But the district did not put her in special ed until this fall, when an advocate intervened — four years after her issues first arose.

In Desoto ISD, near Dallas, former school psychologist Marcy Barlow said her school decided that students could be classified as either English Language Learner or special education — but not both.

And in Beaumont ISD, multiple current and former employees said the district does not accept medical records from other countries, does not conduct evaluations in other languages and only rarely allows English learners to also be in special ed.

A spokeswoman denied those allegations and said the district gives special ed to all who need it.

The district, which has been under scrutiny for poor performance and dysfunction, now serves just 4.2 percent of English learners in special ed. Its overall rate is 7.5 percent.

“It’s very important to the dis- trict to stay below the TEA cap,” said Janice Brassard, who taught at the district for 27 years and then served on the school board for nine, up until 2014. “(English learners) are getting language services, so they say, ‘Well, they’re already serviced.’ ”

Federal law requires schools to provide both language and disability services to disabled English learners, and experts say both are critical.

“Think of a student as a flower,” said Madeline Mavrogordato, an education professor at Michigan State University. “If you only give them language services and not disability services, you’re giving them only sun and not water. It’s not enough.”

Mavrogordato and other experts also said English learners are just as likely as native speakers to have disabilities.

In fact, research has found English learners and other minorities are more prone to disabilities because they are more likely to be born prematurely, at low weight or with fetal alcohol system and to be malnourished or exposed to toxins like lead.

“There is absolutely no reason for them to be in special ed less often,” said Jarice Butterfield, the director of special ed for California’s Santa Barbara County and an expert on disabled English learners.

Nevertheless, unlike African-Americans, who have been put in special ed at higher rates than white students nationwide, prompting concern from some academics and officials, English learners have historically been under-identified.

In the past, that has been partly due to difficulty in discerning whether student struggles were caused by linguistic problems or disabilities, but that issue has eased with new tests in other languages, said several experts, including Butterfield.

“That shouldn’t be a major issue,” she said.

In Texas, before the TEA benchmark, when about 12 percent of all students were in special ed, English learners had a lower rate (11 percent) and African-Americans had a higher rate (14 percent), according to state data.

After a decade in which the state has pressured school districts to cut special education — and has penalized districts for over-identification — little has changed for AfricanAmericans. They are still more likely to get services than white students, and the divergence is almost exactly the same rate.

For English learners, however, there has been a significant decline.

Few places have been more affected than Victoria, a city near the Gulf of Mexico that is best known for hosting a country music festival called Bootfest.

The city gave special ed to 11.8 percent of students before the TEA target, including 13 percent of English learners.

Today, the rate for English learners has sunk to 4 percent, helping to drop the overall district rate to 8.9 percent.

De Los Santos and others said the district often cautions teachers against requesting that English learners be evaluated, citing “over-identification.”

That has led to a 78 percent decline in English learners identified as having “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia, and a 55 percent drop in the speech impairment category.

In addition, according to Victoria ISD, none of its nearly 1,000 English learners has autism.

A spokeswoman said the district “has remained dedicated to addressing the needs of our ELL student population.” She added that Victoria ISD does not pay special attention to the TEA benchmark.

A review of school board meeting notes shows otherwise.

The benchmark has been described as a goal at several meetings. At one, in October 2014, special education director Michelle Goebel said the district’s special education rate had fallen to 8.6 percent, very close to the “TEA target” of 8.5 percent.

“We are definitely headed in the right direction,” she said.

In some Texas schools for English learners, special ed does not exist at all.

Austin ISD’s International High School, a new campus for foreign newcomers, had just one special ed student among its 368 kids and no special ed teachers in the 2014-15 year, state data show.

Similar dynamics now exist in many schools. Houston ISD’s Las Americas school only evaluated one of its 144 students for special education last year, according to the district.

In Austin, four current and former International High School employees blamed the TEA benchmark for the lack of services, saying administrators have blocked their school’s students from special ed to help keep the district’s overall numbers low.

“The district decided to make it extraordinarily difficult for our students to get special education …,” said Peggy Robinson, who retired from the district in August 2015. “I think the cap is the reason.”

Austin ISD declined comment.

The lack of services has had disastrous consequences, educators said.

In August 2011, an International High School student named Marcos Cruz brandished a knife at several people, including two boys on their way to an East Austin bus stop. Cruz was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, which can result in a lifelong prison sentence.

Before the incident, Cruz’s teachers had tried to get him into psychiatric counseling. But administrators had turned them away, claiming he was struggling only because he could not speak English.

Five years later, former English teacher Melissa Arasin still wonders what would have happened if he had gotten special ed.

“It was clear it wasn’t just a language issue. This kid needed help,” she said. “Everybody knew it.”

For others, the suffering has unfolded more slowly.

When Andrés Hernández arrived from Mata- mores, Mexico, in 2006, it was obvious he had special challenges. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, and his family hoped his school would help.

But they were in Beaumont, where schools were cutting back on English learners in special ed.

The district did not even test to see if Hernández qualified for services, records show. Instead, according to his mother, Irene Aviles, the district told her it could not do evaluations in Spanish.

Aviles was a single mother working at two restaurants. She could not fight the district.

Over the next few years, her son struggled. He had to repeat eighth grade. But he was never evaluated for special education.

Last year, he dropped out of school.

Now, Hernández is about to turn 19. He is a friendly young man who loves to play the drums and wants to be a mechanic, but he is struggling to get a GED.

“I’m worried, and I feel guilty,” Aviles said in Spanish. “I wish there was something more that I could have done.”