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.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”