Twice, Britany Miller has asked for special education services and accommodations at two different Houston-area charter schools for her son, Nicholas Davis, who struggles with depression and an attention disorder.
And twice, Miller says, they've been turned down, with one charter school telling her falsely they don't have to follow special education rules.
"It's just heartbreaking to be told, ‘No, no, no — we can't, we can't,'" Miller says.
Miller is among several charter school families who've told Houston Public Media and the Houston Chronicle they face delays and poor access to special ed services for their children. And the special education gap between traditional public schools and charter schools is widening at a time when all Texas schools are supposed to be making major improvements.
Over the last three years, Texas charter schools have increased their share of special needs children by about half a percentage point. In comparison, traditional districts — which already served more children with disabilities — have grown their portion at double that rate, according to data analyzed by Houston Public Media in an investigation with the Chronicle.
It's a troubling indicator for advocates, families and even state administrators as Texas tries to fix a special education crisis more than a decade in the making. While charters may have more flexibility and different oversight than their traditional public school peers, they're still taxpayer-funded schools and must comply with federal laws that guarantee children with disabilities the right to an education.
Miller says she's still trying at a third charter school: "If I give up, it hurts my kid. But I'm fighting and I haven't won yet."
In 2004, the Texas Education Agency arbitrarily — and illegally — set a target of providing special education services to just 8.5% of students and punished school districts if they went over that benchmark, according to a 2016 investigation by the Houston Chronicle. As a result, the portion of Texas children receiving special ed services dropped from 11.6% in 2004 to 8.6% in 2016 — far lower than the national rate.
In response to the investigation, Texas lawmakers banned the cap in 2017, while the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to stop the practice and make amends in January 2018.
Since then, the percentage of children getting special ed services has barely inched up — it’s still under 10% statewide in 2019. But charter schools have made even less improvement. For the 2018-19 school year, only about 7% of students at Texas charters received special ed services, like tutoring or counseling. That's half the national rate of 14%.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky reviewed charter enrollment data for Houston Public Media and determined that the special needs gap between traditional public schools and charters is statistically significant.
What's more, Houston Public Media found that at more than half of Texas charter schools, enrollment of children with disabilities remains below the former, illegal cap. That includes some of the state's largest and most high-profile charter networks, such as IDEA Public Schools, KIPP Texas and YES Prep Public Schools.
"I think this is another case where we can always do more," Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, told Houston Public Media.
Experts have told the Chronicle there are likely a variety of reasons behind the lower shares of special needs children at charters, including families looking for schools with more resources or charters actively discouraging families from applying.
"It was like a roller-coaster ride"
When Nicholas was in elementary school, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and depression. It makes it hard for him to focus in class. Sometimes he gets distracted or even walks out. One of his therapists believes he's on the autism spectrum.
So the Aldine Independent School District, north of Houston, gave Nicholas extra accommodations. As a second grader, he could use a stress ball and keep his favorite race car toys at his desk. An aide shadowed him in class — all to help him stay on track and keep learning.
"They were really good about communicating with me and making sure he got the help he needed so he could pass," Miller says of his traditional public school. "But after Aldine, it was like a roller-coaster ride."
The family moved to Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood where Miller didn't think the local middle school, Attucks, was safe. And she saw it received a low rating from the state, most recently a "D" grade. So Miller turned to charter schools. But instead of support, Miller says two separate charters denied Nicholas special ed services.
At a YES Prep charter campus, where Nicholas attended most of sixth grade, Miller says administrators told her "that this was a charter school and they don't typically have to follow those guidelines."
At first, she believed them because she knew charter schools are different than neighborhood public schools. But then a friend who's a teacher told her they had to follow the same rules, Miller says.
Meanwhile, she says Nicholas was routinely sent home early or suspended for acting out. He complained to his mom he was being bullied and felt like the teachers didn't care, she says.
"I was major stressed out, because I was like, ‘What else can we do to help make sure he's getting what he needs?" Miller says. "It was just a constant battle. The whole school year was a nightmare."
Finally, Miller pulled Nicholas out of YES Prep with about a month left in sixth grade.
For seventh grade, she tried a different charter school — the brand new Yellowstone College Prep near downtown Houston. Again, she says she tried to get him accommodations. And again, she says she felt the school treated Nicholas' disability like a discipline problem.
But this time, Miller put her request for a special ed evaluation in writing. She says the school did some informal observations and decided Nicholas didn't qualify. Miller says she received a denial letter before the full, official evaluation was complete. The reason for the denial, Miller says Yellowstone gave, was his grades didn't indicate Nicholas was struggling.
"They said it was a maturity thing," Miller says.
Both Yellowstone and YES Prep have special ed enrollment rates of 5% and 6%, respectively. That’s below the state average of nearly 10% and the 14% rate at Nicholas' neighborhood public school.
Yellowstone's executive director Ryan Dolibois wouldn't comment on Miller's case but says his campus works hard to identify children with special needs. He says their portion of special needs children may be low because they are a new school and their staff is still working through evaluations — something they've had to hire outside evaluators to help with — which all costs money.
"It's easy to see how you could want to cut corners or be incentivized to not do the full program just simply out of a question of survival, right?" Dolibois says. "But we knew in starting our school, that what was critical for us was to follow the law and to do it well, because, ultimately, that's how you serve students well."
Dolibois says Yellowstone expects their special ed rate to more than double this school year.
YES Prep similarly wouldn't comment on the Miller's situation, citing student privacy. But their spokesperson, Angela Rodriguez, wrote in an email they follow federal disability law and have "robust efforts" to make sure any students who have special needs are identified and given the support they need. Rodriguez added that teachers and staff at YES Prep embrace an "inclusive approach" to special education.
More state monitoring
However, the low numbers of special ed students at Texas charter schools have caught the attention of state administrators.
Matt Montaño, the state's deputy education commissioner of special populations, says the Texas Education Agency has stepped up special ed monitoring for all schools — including charters — and that certain indicators could trigger extra review.
"I do have concern with districts or charters that have lower rates and we do know that charters do, in some cases, have much lower rates. So, that would be a concern that we’d want to be able to address and identify," Montaño says.
He says the agency is trying to improve how its special ed division and charter school department work together, as well as improve how it engages with charter school advocacy groups.
"I think that the concern is how do we make sure that they know what they’re supposed to do," Montaño says.
Charter school leaders, however, say the numbers don't tell the full story.
"We can't make the assumption that there is something wrong," says Starlee Coleman, CEO of the Texas Charter Schools Association.
Coleman believes two other factors contribute to charters' lower share of children with disabilities: their smaller size and their often less experienced teaching staff, which may prompt special needs families to turn to other schools.
A familiar story for advocates
Advocates say Miller's struggle is all too familiar — and that if Texas is going to fix its special education crisis, charter schools have to be part of the solution. Texas is one of the largest charter authorizers in the country, with over 300,000 children or about 1 in every 17 Texas public school students.
"I know they don't want to serve them. And the reason I know they don’t want to serve them is that the families who they counsel out, who they deny and who they push out come to us for services," says Dustin Rynders, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas.
Rynders says "counseling out" can be an informal conversation, for example, when a family goes on a school tour and reveals their child has a disability.
"They may say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t have that kind of placement in our campus," Rynders says. "But when they say that, very often they're saying, ‘You know, you should probably stay where you are now.'"
What's more, state rules allow charter schools to deny admission based on a student's discipline records. Rynders says that can weed out students with special needs because they often have behavior issues related to their disability.
Coleman with the statewide charter association pushed back on those allegations that they use discipline records to screen children with disabilities. She says their members refer to those records mainly to check for very serious, violent infractions.
This school year, Britany Miller has enrolled Nicholas in yet another charter school — their third in three years — for eighth grade. So far, Nicholas likes The Lawson Academy and has enjoyed meeting his new classmates. He's focused on moving onto high school, and then college where he wants to study engineering.
But his mom says she's been disappointed in the charter's promised communication and feels Nicholas is still getting the "bare minimum." Miller says she's not holding out much hope.
"Zero hope, but at the same time, I have to find a little faith in something," she says.