crisis management

Here’s how Richard Carranza handled Houston’s special education crisis and what it could mean for New York City

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
With schools closed for spring break, Richard Carranza joined Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for lunch at Katz's Deli on his first day as chancellor.

Two days before Richard Carranza took over as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 2016, a crisis that had been more than a decade in the making broke into public view.

The Houston Chronicle had just revealed that school districts across Texas systematically denied services to students with disabilities under pressure from the state — and Houston was no exception.

In the coming months, the paper showed that Houston officials had “enthusiastically embraced” the state’s arbitrary limit on the proportion of students who could could receive special education services. As a result, thousands of students went without access to therapies and counseling that they needed — and might legally have been entitled to.

As the full scope of the crisis came into focus after Carranza arrived in September 2016, the new superintendent vowed to enlist outside experts to conduct a thorough review of the district’s practices. “We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” he said at the time.

So when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carranza as his pick to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, local advocates privately wondered what his record on special education in Houston might mean for New York.

“It was something we scrambled and looked at,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children.

Moroff and many of the city’s special education advocates soon learned that the new chancellor shares some of their priorities. Carranza has said he supports including special education students in mainstream classes whenever possible, for instance, and said he has worked to reduce the overidentification of African-American students for special education services.

But they also learned more about what unfolded in Houston — where it wasn’t long before some advocates became frustrated that the special education scandal seemed to be subsumed by other issues including a budget crisis and threats of a state takeover, leaving some feeling like Carranza had not prioritized reforming a system that routinely left students without crucial services.

“A whole generation of educators were told to deny evaluation and be skeptical of referrals for evaluation,” said Dustin Rynders, who supervises a team of lawyers at Disability Rights Texas, a Houston-based advocacy group. “I didn’t feel change was happening fast enough.”

Rynders acknowledged that Carranza was dealt a difficult hand: Denying special education services had been encouraged by the state, ingrained in the district’s culture, and began well before Carranza arrived.

But multiple observers also said that while Carranza said many of the right things, it’s less clear to what extent his efforts changed the reality in schools. A recent audit shows that the district still kept students from being evaluated for special education services after Carranza initiated reforms.

Carranza took “good first steps,” Rynders added. “Do I think special education has largely changed during his first year and a half in the district? No.”

At the heart of Houston’s special education crisis was an arbitrary cap state officials first set in 2004: Despite federal laws that require districts to evaluate any student suspected of having a disability, the state secretly decreed that just 8.5 percent of students should qualify for special education services.

Defending themselves to the Chronicle, officials said they wanted to cut down on costs. They also cited concerns that too many students were being identified as having special needs — an issue that advocates see as particularly possible for students of color who might need different help to be successful in school. But no research suggests that only 8.5 percent of students have disabilities. Nationally, about 13 percent of students are classified as requiring special education services, a rate Texas fell below even before the cap was imposed.

Houston ISD — the seventh largest school district in the country — set an even stricter cutoff in the years before Carranza arrived, resulting in just 7.26 percent of students being identified for special education services, nearly the lowest of any urban school system in the country. (In New York City, by contrast, roughly 19 percent of students receive such services.)

To cut down on the number of students assigned special education services, “HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of ‘exclusionary factors’ that disqualify students from getting services,” according to the Chronicle investigation.

At the same time, district officials defended the extraordinarily low numbers, arguing that they showed early interventions were working and even that special education was not a useful service. “Special education does not deliver better outcomes for kids,” said Sowmya Kumar, the district’s special education director from 2010 to 2017.

That statement outraged advocates. Bob Sanborn, who runs Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy organization, quickly became one of the loudest voices suggesting that Kumar should be fired. He worried that Carranza was being told that the crisis was not as bad as it seemed.

Sanborn was impressed that Kumar resigned, a move he partly credits to Carranza.

“I knew there were forces inside the Houston school district saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to the Chronicle,’” Sanborn told Chalkbeat. “He was able to rise above that and see it objectively and basically pledged to try and fix the system.”

Under Carranza’s leadership, the district ultimately launched a series of parent forums, reorganized the special education department, updated its special education procedures, and added training for educators and staff. Officials also banned schools from using teaching methods designed for struggling students instead of evaluating them for special education services.

But some parents and advocates complained that Carranza did not make special education a top priority, and that his 18-month tenure meant that he left before any lasting changes could take hold.

“I just didn’t see Carranza very involved in the special education issues, despite the huge crisis that was going on,” said Cynthia Singleton, a Houston parent and advocate who has navigated the district’s special education system. She appreciated the district’s listening sessions, but said it wasn’t clear whether they had an impact.

Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas, pointed out that Carranza faced a litany of challenges — a natural disaster in Hurricane Harvey, a massive budget shortfall, and the threat of a state takeover — but echoed that special education never seemed to rise to the top.

“I heard him make some generic comments expressing that we must serve special kids and must make improvements, but I didn’t hear any detailed plan of action,” Rynders said, adding that he still receives calls from parents who are struggling to get their children evaluated for services.

In fact, there have not yet been significant increases in the number of Houston students who are identified for special education services.

Carranza has defended his handling of the special education crisis, pointing to meetings with parents and special education teachers and his call for an outside review of the district’s special education practices. (An education department spokeswoman in New York did not make Carranza available for comment.)

“Once that was brought to my attention we immediately acted,” Carranza said at his first press conference in New York City, referring to Texas’s cap on special education services. “In your new chancellor, as I know with the current chancellor, you have a champion for all students, including students with disabilities.”

Here, Carranza will take over a system that includes 221,000 students with disabilities — a population that is larger than Houston’s entire student population and which comes with its own set of longstanding problems.

Students with disabilities continue to post far lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers. Roughly 27 percent of students who were assigned special education services, or 48,000 students, only received some of the services they were entitled to, or none at all. And the city can’t be sure how accurate those numbers are because its system for tracking student services is notoriously glitchy.

Moroff said she is optimistic that Carranza will take those problems seriously — and that local advocates will make sure those students remain on his agenda.

“He’s obviously got some experience looking at special education, and looking at it systematically,” Moroff said. “We hope it stays on his radar here.”

New leader

Lee picks Texas academic chief Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s next education commissioner

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee's education commissioner under governor-elect Bill Lee. He announced her hiring on Thursday, two days before his inauguration. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Fast facts about Schwinn

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sacramento, California
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of California-Berkeley, 2004
  • Master of Arts in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
  • Ph.D. in Education Policy, Claremont Graduate University, 2016

An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for academic programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

“Penny leads with students at the forefront, and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years,” said Lee.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet hires for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday. The responsibilities are also are among the most specialized as the governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled with to transition to online exams in its own testing program.

Schwinn is viewed as a change agent who is focused on students but also has been criticized for the reforms that she’s led in multiple states.

Before Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up, and she served as an elected school board member.

She started her education career with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.

Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.

In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent the state’s superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose someone with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.

Schwinn follows two education commissioners under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and politically contentious academic standards known as Common Core.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet picks for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday and will dig in quickly to prepare his first proposed spending plan in Tennessee.

Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.

Lee also campaigned that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more school options for parents to choose from.

Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”

“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.

Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over Tennessee’s testing program beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s TNReady assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.

She’ll also work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.

Testing

New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.