Hit hardest by Texas’ illegal special education cap: Low-income students of color, study shows

Students who lost services as a result of Texas’ illegal cap on special education were dramatically less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, a new study shows. 

The paper is the first to document the long-term consequences of Texas’ limits on special education classification, the subject of a bombshell Houston Chronicle investigation in 2016.

The impact was massive. Those who lost special education services were 52 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 38 points less likely to enroll in college as a result, according to the study. 

The cap was especially harmful for students of color and students from low-income families. And general education students were hurt by the practice, too, according to a separate study by the same researchers, Brianna Ballis of U.C. Davis and Katelyn Heath of Cornell. 

“For students who lose access to special education services, there are long-term negative effects,” said Ballis.

The paper examines what happened after Texas added a 8.5% special-education target to its school accountability system in 2004. By auditing districts with higher disability rates, Texas pushed districts to keep thousands of students out of special education, saving the state billions, the Chronicle found. (The target was not based on any scientific evidence and was later ruled in violation of federal law.) 

Ballis and Heath looked at fifth-grade students who were labeled as disabled before the target was put in place, particularly in districts that would go on to face the most pressure to reduce their disability rates.

They found that students in those districts were significantly more likely than students elsewhere to lose special education status as they progressed through school. Those students then saw their chances of graduating high school and enrolling college plummet. 

Students of color and low-income students were doubly harmed by the policy. They were especially likely to lose their special education status, and when they did, they saw even steeper declines in graduation and college enrollment, suggesting that better-off families or better-funded districts were able to compensate for the loss of services in ways that others were not.

The findings don’t surprise Sarah Bebee, a lawyer with Disability Rights Texas, the organization that tipped off the Houston Chronicle about the state’s attempt to limit students labeled as having a disability. 

“What I particularly see through my work, working exclusively with kids who are involved with juvenile justice, is this entire generation of students who were not evaluated, did not receive the services that they needed, and have been pushed out of school through excessive disciplinary measures, who have failed out and are several grade levels behind,” she said.

Texas has eliminated its cap, but even today, many families and advocates say it remains too difficult for many students to receive appropriate services.

The paper is preliminary, but Tomoe Kanaya, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who has studied special education, praised its approach. 

But the study leaves a central puzzle unanswered: what explains such a steep decline in graduation and enrollment rates? 

The obvious explanation is that students with disabilities saw the quality of their education decline as a result of losing special education services. 

But Ballis and Heath identify another potential cause. Texas policy at the time allowed students with disabilities to graduate high school without having passed an exit exam. That meant losing a special education label also raised the bar for earning a high school diploma. And since since finishing high school is a precondition to college enrollment, higher graduation standards could affect college enrollment, too. 

Ballis and Heath found some evidence that points to the higher graduation bar being the main culprit. Students who lost their special education status didn’t see test scores fall, attendance rates decline, or their likelihood of repeating a grade increase. That’s surprising: if the loss of services translated to immediate academic struggles, you would expect to see changes in those metrics.

That doesn’t mean the harmful effects of the cap aren’t real. Those students really did have much lower odds of graduating. But the results don’t clearly show what effect the special education services were having.

Isolating the impact of these services on measurable outcomes has long challenged researchers. Recent research in New York City and older research in Texas have linked special education services to higher test scores. But another recent study found little evidence that students who received special education services — compared to similar students who didn’t — benefitted in terms of high school graduation, adult income, and other long-run outcomes.

Meanwhile, a separate paper by Heath and Ballis also found the Texas cap had perverse consequences on black and Hispanic general education students. Their high school graduation rates and college enrollment fell by about half a percentage point. 

“This is likely a result of increases in the number of unsupported and unaccommodated students in the general education classroom,” the researchers explain.