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.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
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