The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975. Renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, with amendments added in 1997, this law included provisions that required schools to provide appropriate, individually tailored special education programs for children with disabilities at no (direct) cost to their families. This law was passed at a time when public schools often had inadequate special education programs that forced families to find services outside of the public school system, often at great expense. While education was seen as being a state level matter, it was recognized that federal assistance could go a long way to insure that resources were equitably allocated in order to provide the kind of equal opportunity that folks like Rush Limbaugh believe we all already have.
Culturally, the years leading up to the signing of the EAHCA/IDEA were turbulent yet prosperous. The Civil Rights movement was working towards greater educational opportunities for minority and disadvantaged youths. The Black Panthers, for example, started an early version of the Head Start program and fed children in their communities free hot breakfasts for better learning. At the same time, there was a high relative level of prosperity in the United States during the post war period and into the 1970s that encouraged the building of infrastructure and sharing of opportunity in a nation on the way up. We felt we could afford to have nice things and invest in our future.
Later, Texas would have its own little boom, called the Texas Miracle. In the 2000s, Texas experienced job creation at rates said to surpass the United States as a whole. However, this boom was of questionable provenance and strength. Many of the jobs were due to the petroleum industry and the multiplier effect, as the petroleum money wound its way through local economies. Texas also experienced population growth from immigration, mostly from Mexico, and from having a high birthrate of second-generation Americans; even without cannibalizing jobs from the other states, that population boom would have stimulated the Texan economy. However, because of that young and cheap work force that drove down wages and economic policies that favored the trickle-up of money in a way that fosters inequality, one can see in the Texan bust a microcosm of catabolic collapse in the U.S.
Which brings us, finally, to special education. In an effort to save money, the Texas Education Agency has arbitrarily capped the number of children who can access special education programs at 8.5%. This is much lower than the national average of 13%, and in major cities where the need for special education services is greatest, the rates are even lower: Houston (7.4%) and Dallas (6.9%) are far below other major cities, such as New York (19%) and Detroit (about 20%). Texas does this by flouting federal law. School districts that appropriately serve their special needs children are scored poorly on a metric that could result in fines, corrective action, or takeover. Parents are routinely discouraged from exercising their lawful right to request evaluation of their children and placement, if appropriate, in special education classes, and parents that press the issue are instead offered lukewarm accommodations for their special needs children, such as preferential seating in class and more lenient grading. Opting for these concessions can cost only a couple dollars per student, as opposed to the thousands of dollars that a quality special education program would cost the state.
On one hand, a declining tax base due to the bust of the petroleum industry and the distillation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands means that special education programs and other luxuries that the country invested in during times of prosperity become harder to afford. Catabolic collapse is what happens when the status quo becomes impossible to maintain, so some of the maintenance costs are cut, with the savings used to prop up other expenditures in a way that can look like recovery. Special education is expensive, and if the money isn’t there, perhaps Texas is having to pick and choose what expenses are the most valuable to its citizens, or at least to the people in power.
On the other hand, by eliminating special education costs (and attendant benefits), Texas is reverting to a time before the EAHCA/IDEA, when families were on the hook for expensive services, but in a time of less relative prosperity when young and underpaid families can ill afford such expenses. Texas is also making an important choice about its future, and about the worth of its human capital. A modern conservative rallying cry is often “What about the Children?” However, by consigning a significant number of its special needs children to years of untreated cognitive or physical disabilities, depression, missed opportunities, and likely dependence on a system unlikely to support them as they grow up, Texas is making the ironically unconservative decision to eat its young.