The idea behind public education is simple: A community pays into a system that aims to create a bright future for the next generation. Years pass, and those kids grow up. They pay into the same system, yielding the same dividends. Repeat.

But things aren’t always that simple. As this week’s episode explains, the policies that shape public education can be subject to influences – ideological and financial.

We begin with a profile of President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. She’s been a staunch advocate for what’s known as “school choice” for decades. Her vision is to give parents more freedom to decide where their kids go to school, and she wants taxpayers to cover it with public money, even when some schools discriminate against gay students or others protected by civil rights laws.

Then we jump to Texas, where an investigation by the Houston Chronicle showed how Texas arbitrarily imposed a cap on special education. It saved a lot of money but it also went against federal laws that support special needs students. We team up with Houston Public Media to tell that story.

Finally, reporter Rowan Moore Gerety investigates school suspensions in Miami. A few years ago, Miami-Dade County public schools banned out-of-school suspensions outright, citing racial disparities. Within a year, reported suspensions dropped from 20,000 to zero. But according to parents, teachers and students, kids are still being sent home for misbehavior and simply marked absent.

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Read: Denied


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. I want to take you back to September 2001 and just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. The country is on edge. The US is getting ready to launch its first strike on Afghanistan, and no one is sure what will come next. All of this is on the minds of the people joining a private invitation-only meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s a networking event called The Gathering that brings together about 400 of the country’s leading Christian conservatives each fall.
That year, they met at a luxury resort called the Venetian, a 250-acre oasis in this desert city. It has tennis courts, a 27-hole golf course, mountain views, a meditation atrium, even a mother-of-pearl tiled swimming pool. The guests at The Gathering sign up for sessions on topics like helping orphans in Africa, effective prayer, and maximizing charitable gifts. Among the top-billed speakers was a wealthy married couple from Michigan.
Speaker 2:We are so glad to have Dick and Betsy DeVos with us tonight.
Al Letson:Dick and Betsy DeVos. His dad co-founded Amway. Her dad invented the lighted sun visors in cars. Dick and Betsy are now billionaires, and she of course is the Secretary of Education. By listening in on this private meeting from 16 years ago, we start to get a sense of her views. At that time, she suggested that American culture was undermining the values that Christian students brought to public schools.
Betsy DeVos:I think what’s happened in many cases in the last couple of decades is that the schools have impacted the kids more than the kids are able to impact the schools.
Al Letson:Her solution seemed to be find money for families to leave public school. DeVos had already tried to do that in Michigan in 2000. She backed a change to the state constitution that would have allowed students to attend any school they wanted — private or religious — with taxpayer-funded vouchers. Michigan voters turned that down. The moderator asked DeVos why bother with public schools.
Speaker 4:Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply fund Christian private schools and be done with it? Just build great Christian private schools?
Betsy DeVos:The fact is that we can give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny that they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country.
Al Letson:Their talk wrapped that year with Dick DeVos telling the crowd how Betsy was actively recruiting people to run for public office. Now she has a public office herself. She helps control billions of dollars a year in federal education money, and she has a chance to make her vision of public education a reality. Reveal’s Emily Harris shows us how she’s working to get it done.
Emily Harris:Most Americans first met Betsy DeVos back in January at her confirmation hearings.
Speaker 6:This is the hearing to consider the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be United States Secretary of Education.
Emily Harris:The room was crowded with journalists and politicians. DeVos, who is 59, sat in front of a committee of Senators. She wore a smart blue jacket, her glasses, and a nervous smile. She had a reputation as a longtime education activist who donated millions of dollars to political campaigns. Her supporters called her a visionary helping needy kids. Her opponents said she’s out to privatize public education. Let’s listen to how Betsy DeVos described herself at a meeting with conservatives in February.
Betsy DeVos:I pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Emily Harris:That’s pretty saucy, but it was her answers at the confirmation hearing that went viral among her critics. Betsy DeVos seemed to lack a basic understanding of education policies and laws. Take this exchange with Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.
Tim Kaine:Should all schools that receive-
Betsy DeVos:If schools-
Tim Kaine:… taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education?
Betsy DeVos:I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.
Emily Harris:This is something that you’re going to hear DeVos say a lot. Her other big theme? The rights of parents.
Betsy DeVos:Do you believe parents should be able to choose the best school for their child regardless of their zip code or family income? Me too and so does President Trump.
Emily Harris:So bottom line, Betsy DeVos wants parents to pick their kids’ schools. She wants taxpayers to cover it, and she wants Feds to let states set this up however they want. One of her first chances to bring about some of these changes came in May.
Speaker 8:Morning, Madame Secretary. It’s genuinely my pleasure to welcome you here to the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education. We’re looking forward to hearing your testimony.
Emily Harris:She was speaking before a House committee then.
Betsy DeVos:We cannot allow any parent to feel their child is trapped in a school that isn’t meeting his or her unique needs.
Emily Harris:She was asking Congress to approve 250 million federal dollars so states could send more kids to private schools.
Katherine Clark:You’ve talked a lot about the flexibility of states as being preeminent.
Emily Harris:That’s Democratic Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts. Her gray hair was flipped back. Her eyes were intent through her red-framed glasses, and she grilled DeVos on whether the Education Secretary would let federal money go to private schools that discriminate.
Katherine Clark:So I want to go back to Indiana to Bloomington in particular and look at the Lighthouse Christian Academy.
Emily Harris:Lighthouse is a private religious school in Indiana. Clark said it gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in Indiana state voucher money. She said the school’s policy permits rejecting students who are gay, bi, or trans or who come from gay families.
Katherine Clark:If this school which obviously is approved to discriminate against LGBT students in Indiana, if Indiana applies for this federal funding, will you stand up that this school be open to all students?
Betsy DeVos:Thank you, Congresswoman, for your question with regard broadly to school choice.
Katherine Clark:It’s actually kind of-
Emily Harris:Clark was on the warpath. She interrupted DeVos to repeat her question and made a fist as she made her points.
Katherine Clark:This isn’t … This isn’t about parents making choices. This is about use of federal dollars. Is there any situation would you say to Indiana “That school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars?” Or would you say the state has the flexibility in this situation?
Betsy DeVos:I believe states-
Katherine Clark:Yes or no?
Betsy DeVos:… continue to have flexibility in putting together programs-
Katherine Clark:So if I am-
Emily Harris:So flexibility for states and choice for parents.
Betsy DeVos:I go back to the … The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions.


Katherine Clark:I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.


Emily Harris:People were astonished that DeVos would not answer Clark’s question. In the end, both the House and the Senate Education Committees voted down the $250 million DeVos wanted for school choice, but she has another way to get federal money to cover private school tuition.


John Schilling:We believe that the best and most viable proposal is to try to do a federal education tax credit.


Emily Harris:That’s John Schilling. He’s a longtime friend of Betsy DeVos. He’s the COO of the nonprofit she stated, the American Federation for Children. That education tax credit he’s talking about? It works like this. Instead of paying all your taxes, you can donate some of what you owe to a scholarship fund for students who want to attend private schools. Students can use the scholarship at any kind of private school: Christian, Muslim, Montessori. Close to 20 states already have these. Schilling says tax credit scholarships would be the easiest way for Congress to cover private school tuition.


John Schilling:If you were going to try to do a voucher or an education savings account, you would probably have to try to do that using some existing pot of federal education money. If this is a federal education tax credit where you have corporate and individual contributions, charitable contributions, this is all private money.


Emily Harris:This is actually a point people argue about a lot. Some courts have found that tax credits don’t count as public money because the cash never actually gets into the government’s hands. Carl Davis is with the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. He calls that argument a whole bunch of bunk.


Carl Davis:In effect functioning more like a money laundering scheme where the government wants to direct its money into private schools and it’s not able to do so. So it ends up paying taxpayers to act as middlemen to help in that redirection of funds.


Emily Harris:Some conservative groups oppose national tax credit scholarships too. That’s because they don’t want any strings attached. Neither does DeVos as we heard at that House hearing when Representative Katherine Clark pressed her on whether federal money would go to schools that discriminate.


Katherine Clark:You would put the state flexibility over our students. Is that your testimony?


Betsy DeVos:I think a hypothetical in this case-


Katherine Clark:It’s not a hypothetical. This is a real school applying for … That receives-


Speaker 12:Ladies-


Katherine Clark:… dollars.


Speaker 12:… time is expired.


Emily Harris:It’s firmly established legal precedent that private schools can get taxpayer funds and still retain their right to choose students based on ability, behavior, or religious beliefs. But getting kicked out of private school because you’re gay is not a hypothetical. Salvador [Caldoran 00:10:01] attended Calvary Day School in


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Emily Harris:… hypothetical. Salvador Calderon attended Calvary Day School in Savannah, Georgia for six years, until school officials learned that he was gay.


Sal Calderon:I knew it was a Christian school and I knew we had gay people, I didn’t know it was that bad to be gay.


Emily Harris:It happened last fall, the start of Sal’s senior year. He was a football star. He was getting attention from college recruiters. On local TV, Head Coach Mark Stroud praised him.


Coach Stroud:He throws the ball well, he runs the ball well, and he has a lot of intangibles. He’s a great kid, works hard. He has the affection of his teammates.


Emily Harris:Sal’s a mixed race kid, and he comes from a really messy family situation. He thought football was going to be his ticket out, and then, Sal fell in love.


Sal Calderon:The beginning was meeting Tim.


Emily Harris:Tim is Sal’s boyfriend. Sal was 17 years old when he they met, but he pretended he was older. Tim is older. He’s in his mid-40s. Both Sal and Tim realize this is a huge age difference, but Sal points out that Georgia lawmakers made 16 the age of sexual consent. The two dated for months and they were discreet in public, but they posted photos on social media, and rumors started.


One day at practice, the school’s assistant football coach, a good friend of Sal’s, told Sal the headmaster wanted to see him and he wanted to see him right away. The coach said it was about Sal’s love life. Sal was scared.


Sal Calderon:I was afraid, because I had to come out at that time. I was going everywhere, I gotta come out. What am I gonna say? What am I gonna do?


Emily Harris:Sal says he told the truth, and he learned the consequences. He remembers school officials telling him that if he wanted to stay in school, he’d have to give up football for a month, do spiritual counseling about being gay, and stop seeing Tim. Sal said okay to everything, but he kept seeing Tim. The headmaster, James Taylor, found out, and he called Sal in again.


Sal Calderon:He put it to where I had to withdraw and he didn’t have to expel me, because he knew if he would expel me. So, made it to point to make him look good and make me look bad.


Emily Harris:I asked the headmaster for an interview several times, but he never got back to me. In a letter that he sent to the school community (it was later posted online), he said a cherished student had voluntarily withdrawn from school due to his decision to stay in a same-sex relationship. Taylor wrote that gay relationships are contrary to Christian beliefs practiced at the school, and that the school was concerned about Sal’s age compared to Tim’s. Sal transferred to another private school. He graduated last June, and he immediately moved in with Tim. He’s working selling furniture and he’s preparing to go to nursing school.


Sal was forced out of a school that uses state tax credit scholarships. I wondered if this was common, so I went to see Steve Suitts.


Steve Suitts:Hello.


Emily Harris:Hi, how are you?


Steve Suitts:I’m fine. Come in.


Emily Harris:Steve’s home is an old wooden house near downtown Atlanta. He lives and breathes education in the South. He wrote a book on Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, the former KKK member who later voted to end racial segregation in US schools.


Steve Suitts:I’ve been dealing and watching and monitoring private school development in the South for forty years.


Emily Harris:Upstairs, Steve’s study is packed with photos, paintings, books, a globe, and an enormous hard-cover dictionary. In 2013, Steve was working for the Southern Education Foundation. He studied which private schools in Georgia get state taxpayer-funded scholarships.


Steve Suitts:Those schools, by and large, are religious institutions.


Emily Harris:More than 100 of those schools had anti-gay policies his report called “severe.”


Steve Suitts:You’ve got schools that are teaching folks that those people are, as one textbook says, “no better than murderers, thieves, and rapists.”


Emily Harris:This makes Steve furious, because he remembers being taught very similar ideas about African-Americans when he was a young white kid going to public school.


Steve Suitts:The government ought not be in the business of providing schooling that teaches hate. It was not a South I wanted when I came of age, and it’s not a South I’m gonna accept as an adult, and it’s not an America we should have, either.


Emily Harris:Sixteen years ago, at that private meeting with other wealthy Christians, Betsy DeVos spoke about the role of religion in public education.


Betsy DeVos:Our desire is to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom.


Emily Harris:She’s not saying that anymore, at least not publicly, but she is sticking by her other goal: Reshaping public education so parents can send their kids to any school they want with taxpayer dollars.


Al Letson:That story from Reveal’s Emily Harris. Next, we’ll hear what happened when one state make up its own rules about a key civil right protected by Federal education laws. You’re listening to Reveal.


Byard Duncan:Hey folks, Byard Duncan here from Reveal’s Engagement Team. Each Monday, I put together our email newsletter, The Weekly Review. I know what you’re thinking, another email, but trust me, this one is worth it. It’s more than just a rundown of the stories you hear each week. It’s a place where reporters go behind the scenes and explain their process. Just recently, Al jumped in to talk about his experience at a protest in Berkeley, California.


Signing up is super easy. Just text “newsletter,” one word, to 63735. Again, that’s “newsletter” to 63735.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Marie LeMay and her 17-year-old daughter, Jade, are checking out old yearbooks from their time in Texas.


Jade:Hey, is that me?


Marie LeMay:Oh, that’s so cute! You and your whole class together.


Al Letson:Back in 2006, Jade was excited about first grade in Round Rock, a suburb of Austin. Marie remembers Jade’s big dream.


Marie LeMay:Mommy, I’m gonna be the smartest kind in school!


Jade:When I was younger, I wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to save everybody and be the best out of everybody.


Al Letson:Back then, Jade had been diagnosed with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. The disorder makes it hard to concentrate and can disrupt how a child learns. Jade’s mom worried that there was even more going on, because while her classmates learned to read, tell time, and count money, Jade struggled. Marie thought the school should do more to help Jade read, like one-on-one coaching.


Marie LeMay:And then, by the end of the year, she was at the bottom. She was performing at the very bottom of her class and I felt so sad for her, because it deflated her dream for that year that she could be the smartest kid in her class.


Al Letson:The school had an idea.


Jade:My teacher was like, “Would you like to stay in first grade again?” I was like, “Yes!”, immediately, ’cause I loved that teacher.


Al Letson:Marie wasn’t so sure. She thought Jade needed special education. It’s been proven to help many kids with ADHD like Jade. Jade repeated first grade in Texas. She still struggled to read. Marie saw how it took a toll on her daughter’s self-esteem.


Marie LeMay:She was begging me to homeschool her. Over and over and over. She was calling herself a dummy. It just broke my heart, because I know how smart she is.


Al Letson:Marie was a single mom at the time and felt pretty alone in all this, but she knew the federal law was on her side, or at least, it was supposed to be. The law is called “The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act,” passed by Congress in 1975. She knew that if she asked the school to test Jade for special ed, they had to at least consider it. The school agreed to a meeting, and Marie came armed with medical documents. But, by the end of the meeting, school administrators said Jade needed extra coaching, but no special ed.


Marie LeMay:We’ll put more time into it and we’ll see if another reading program will help.


Al Letson:Next, in second grade, things got worse for Jade. An outside psychiatrist diagnosed her with more conditions, anxiety, depression, a learning disability in written expression, and Asperger’s. In third grade, Marie asked again to test Jade for special ed, and …


Marie LeMay:The short story is that it was denied.


Al Letson:Afterwards, Marie pulled the principal aside and said she was willing to do whatever it took.


Marie LeMay:It seems like this was a big game that was being played. Like something behind the scenes was going on where-


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Marie LeMay:Something behind the scenes was going on where I needed to know somebody, or I needed to have a code word or something.


Speaker 2:Was there a big game being played? The Houston Chronicle investigated special education in Texas and why so many children like Jade are denied, even though these services are supposed to be guaranteed by federal law.


Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media has a story of how investigative reporter, Brian Rosenthal, uncovered what was going on.


Laura Isensee:Brian Rosenthal was reporting for the Houston Chronicle in 2016 when he got a tip from a guy named Dustin Rynders. Dustin’s an attorney with Disability Rights Texas. He says he started to notice something unusual about special education in the state.


Dustin Rynders:The calls used to be about quality of services and now most of them are about just getting in the door.


Laura Isensee:When Dustin tried to get kids tested for special education, officials kept mentioning the same number, 8.5%.


Dustin Rynders:“Well, you know, we have to be careful of our 8.5%.” We never even knew what they were talking about because of course, there’s nothing in federal law or an idea that suggests that there should be any caps.


Laura Isensee:You’re going to hear that number a lot in this story. Dustin thought it was some kind of target Texas set for how many children with disabilities could receive special education.


That didn’t make sense to Brian because federal law says there should be no limit.


Brian Rosenthal:I didn’t really believe that it was real when I first heard about it. It seemed so crazy.


Laura Isensee:Dustin had already complained to the Texas Education Agency and the US Department of Education. No luck. Now Dustin was hoping an investigative reporter could help. But Brian knew it wouldn’t be easy.


Brian Rosenthal:My big question was how can we prove that this is the reason why fewer kids are in special ed and what’s the impact of that on kids?


Laura Isensee:To answer that, first Brian wanted to crunch the numbers himself.


Brian Rosenthal:I’m a numbers person and the numbers in this case were so stunning.


Laura Isensee:Right away, he saw the percentage of kids in special ed in Texas had dropped so much, the state ranked dead last in the country. What was strange was that Texas used to be close to the national average with 13% of students receiving special ed services. Now Texas was way below that at 8.5%, that same number Dustin heard.


Brian Rosenthal:When you think about it that way, it doesn’t seem like that big of a difference but when you remember that it’s a percentage of 5 million school children in the state of Texas, you realize it’s hundreds of thousands of kids.


Laura Isensee:Brian started calling people requesting hundreds of documents. And looking at old news stories, he came across one hearing in 2010 where state senators noticed the big drop in special education, and asked the Texas Education Agency about it. The state Special Ed Director, Eugene Lenz, told them it was because of innovative teaching techniques.


Eugene Lenz:In the sense of kids that struggled in the curriculum and the teachers having the skill set to actually deal with the reading difficulty, really significantly reduced the number of kids that may have historically been referred for special education assessment.


Laura Isensee:To Brian, it sounded odd. So did something else state officials claimed, that Texas was just part of a national trend. Brian checks that out too with his own math. He takes Texas out of the equation and the national drop versus disappears.


Brian Rosenthal:So when we saw that there was no national trend, and in fact, Texas was making it appear as if there was a national trend. It told us not only is the story real but that it is so big, it’s going to change the conventional wisdom about special education in the United States.


Laura Isensee:Brian’s big break came when he found a reference to that elusive cap, the one he first heard about from his tipster, buried in a manual on education. And he realizes, it’s been on the books for 12 years. All along, the Texas Education Agency was grading districts on how many kids received special ed and punishing those with high numbers. So now he could prove it. That target denied many families access to special education, which was against federal law.


Next, he needed to find out why.


Brian Rosenthal:8.5%. Why 8.5%? How did the Texas Education Agency come up with that number?


Laura Isensee:Jade’s mom Marie LeMay had no clue Texas was pressuring districts to limit special ed enrollment. All she knows is that she has piles of documents showing her daughter Jade needed certain services. But the Round Rock Independent School District near Austin kept refusing to evaluate Jade.


Marie reads one of those documents.


Marie LeMay:“Jade’s educational needs and academic struggles can continue to be met sufficiently through general education options and interventions at this time.” That’s so completely not true.


Laura Isensee:Marie’s an occupational therapist so she knows the right help can make a huge difference.


Marie LeMay:I was wondering what on earth was going on. Why were they dragging their feet? What was their motivation? Why on earth would they want to lose a child so early?


Laura Isensee:Brian wanted to figure that out too. He knew that Texas had limited the number of special education students to 8.5%. But he still didn’t know why.


First, he called the Texas Education Agency to just plain ask them. They refused to sit down with him and talk, or even answer questions by email. So Brian started calling dozens of former employees.


He finally finds out who made the change. It was just four people, unelected bureaucrats who worked at the Texas Education Agency. These four people came up with the idea in virtual secret.


Brian tracks them down.


Ed Fuller:The Google subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.


Laura Isensee:He leaves a lot of messages.


Brian Rosenthal:Hi, it’s Brian Rosenthal with the Houston Chronicle. I am calling again hoping to talk with you about special education.


Laura Isensee:Then one day in the summer of 2016, he finally reaches one of those four officials, Kathy Clayton. Brian doesn’t have a recording of that call. And Kathy, who left the state agency in 2011, refused to talk with him again.


But Brian’s notes were clear. Clayton confirmed there was a cap. And she told Brian why they only let 8.5% of Texas children receive special ed.


Brian Rosenthal:Any time you’re going to set a goal, you move the number in one direction to get people to move in a direction.


Laura Isensee:And when she said that, what did that mean to you? How did you translate that?


Brian Rosenthal:The translation for me was that this 8.5% was chosen completely arbitrarily. There was no research behind it. There was no effort done to find out what the actual prevalence of disabilities is in the population. No look at what the historical, nationwide trends had been. No effort at all really except to say that they wanted to move the number. That it was completely arbitrarily and meant to reduce the number of kids in special ed.


Laura Isensee:Brian found no discussion about any of this at the State Legislature. No discussion at the State Board of Education. And no notice to the federal government that Texas was limiting how many children could receive special ed. So why would Texas make this change?


Brian Rosenthal:The impact of it has been a tremendous amount of money saved by the state. I mean the very rough calculation is that if Texas was at the national average, about 250,000 more students would be getting special ed today that are not getting special ed.


Laura Isensee:Because special ed costs more, Brian estimates Texas saved one and a half billion dollars a year, just when lawmakers cut the education budget by almost the same amount.


By the time Jade was in second grade, her mom Marie had married Ed Fuller. He actually works in the education field. At first, he believes Jade’s teachers had her best interest at heart.


Ed Fuller:Being that was just what I expected of teachers. Like you do whatever you can to make the kids be successful. That’s your job as a teacher and you never waiver from that commitment.


Laura Isensee:Then Jade’s school didn’t give her the intensive coaching they promised. Ed did his own investigation. When Jade was in fourth grade, he checked out how-


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Speaker 1:… investigation. When Jade was in fourth grade, he checked out how she was doing compared to her classmates.


Ed Fuller:In fact, I was a consultant for the district at this point in time, and I had everybody’s reading scores. I knew Jade had made the least progress of any kid from third to fourth grade in the district.


Speaker 1:He asked why she still didn’t qualify.


Ed Fuller:It was clear, we’ll try stuff but it’s not going to be Special Ed, nor is it going to be one-on-one, because the only way she can get one-on-one is we place her in Special Ed, and we’re just not going to do that. At that point, I was like, “Okay, this is ridiculous.” I lost it at that point.


Speaker 1:Ed fired off an email to the superintendent, and all of a sudden they said they would test Jade. He didn’t know the reason they had to fight so hard for so long just to get Jade tested, was because of that cap on Special Ed. But other people on the inside of the education system knew what was going on. Brian talked to 200 of them in his investigation.


Brian heads to a tiny town in South Texas to meet one of those insiders.


WIllie Ruiz:My name is Willie Ruiz. I live in Alice, Texas, and I do have a lot of knowledge of the school district because I am an employee of the school district. First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I’m speaking as a parent.


Speaker 1:When Texas began monitoring Special Ed, Willie was an elementary school principal. The whole district only has about 5,000 students. Willie says they were warned.


WIllie Ruiz:You know, we’ve always been told we need to watch our numbers, we can’t have kids in Special Ed, we can’t go over that cap, because districts have to do correction action plans. Of course, that’s what everybody talks about, not having numbers.


Speaker 1:Willie believes that pressure kept kids out. Then it happened to his own son, Marco. Marco’s autistic and had received services until 2016, when school administrators kicked Marco out. Within a month of Brian’s story in the Houston Chronicle, the U.S. Department of Education ordered Texas to stop its policy and launched an investigation.


Speaker 4:Texas schools are under national scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Education wants to know why the state has the lowest rate of Special Education students …


Speaker 1:By December, the feds showed up in person.


Gregg Corr:Good evening, everyone. I’m Gregg Corr from the U.S. Department of Education, and welcome to our listening session on Special Education in Texas.


Speaker 1:Corr and other federal officials wanted to hear from parents about what was happening with their kids. They held listening sessions across Texas, like this one in Houston. Over 100 parents, teachers and advocates head to a drab auditorium on the edge of the city on a chilly Monday night. One by one, people spoke at the mic.


First, Richard Sunken talked about his grandchild still struggling to read in high school.


Speaker 6:Administration says, “We don’t want to give too many accommodations, we’ll enable her.” How are you enabling somebody that can’t read 15 years old? At the rate we’re going, she’s going to graduate from high school and not be able to read. This is wrong.


Speaker 1:Eva Flores had to fight against the Houston’s school districts expensive lawyers to get her autistic son services.


Speaker 7:I have three college degrees. My Bachelors, my MBA, and my Law Degree. If I have this much trouble getting services, and competent services for my child, after having been in the system for a dozen years, what of the parents who don’t have the resources I have going through? And what are their children [inaudible 00:34:07]?


Speaker 1:Soon the two hours for the session were up. The federal manager Gregg Corr tried to close it down.


Speaker 8:I didn’t drive 160 miles to be here today, not for you to listen to me or my son.


Speaker 1:The crowd forced the session to continue until everyone had a chance to tell their story.


Marie Lamay and her husband Ed didn’t get to talk about Jade at these sessions. That’s because by then they moved to Pennsylvania. One reason, they were so fed up with Texas schools denying Jade Special Education. In Pennsylvania, Jade had no problem getting the services she needed. Now in 11th grade, she loves learning about animals in her science class.


Jade:All right, we’re shining a light on the shell of the egg to see if it’s fertilized or not.


Speaker 1:Jade still receives some services, like extra time on tests, but she’s caught up to her peers and thinking about college. Like most teenagers, she just wants to fit in.


Jade:When I was in seventh grade and before seventh grade, I was like in special math classes for kids who were slow learners. I didn’t want to be in that class anymore, because I knew that I was better than that. I worked my butt off to show them.


Speaker 1:We got back in touch with Jade’s old school district, Round Rock, to find out why they never gave her the same support. The district’s new Special Education Director, Marie Gonzales, insisted it’s rare for a parent to request an evaluation and be denied.


Marie Gonzales:Because again, the law says that if anyone has a suspicion of a disability, we’re obligated to investigate that, to pursue that.


Speaker 1:That’s the federal law, but the Round Rock Special Ed rate has dropped since 2004, just like the rest of Texas.


How would you explain the drop in the numbers?


Marie Gonzales:It’s never been considered a cap in our district. It’s not the way we’ve approached it at all. By having been in Special Education, been a special educator in Round Rock ISD for 22 years, I’ve never had anyone say, “This child in front of us, we’re not going to qualify for Special Education because we’ve run out of seats.” It just doesn’t work that way.


Speaker 1:We asked Texas Education officials and the U.S. Department of Education for interviews as well. They didn’t want to talk. After that public hearing, Texas officials took up the issue. The state education agency eliminated the cap on Special Education, and lawmakers banned any future limit on those services.


In Pennsylvania, Marie Lamay and Ed Fuller found out what happened by reading Brian’s stories. Suddenly, everything made sense.


Marie Lamay:It erased that feeling that the whole episode gave me that I was just a hysterical mother. They had no right to drag us through this mud.


Ed Fuller:I’m still angry about it. I will be angry about it forever. The people that were in that meeting that decided that and whoever signed off on that should all go to jail.


Speaker 13:No one at the Texas Education Agency has been charged or held publicly accountable for breaking federal law. Parents are still waiting for the results of the federal investigation. Thanks to Laura Isensee of Houston Public Media and Brian Rosenthal, who’s now a reporter for the New York Times.


School administrators around the country say they’ve quit suspending students for bad behavior, but are they telling the truth? That’s next on Reveal, from the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.


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So check it out. Join Michelle Thaller for Orbital Path from PRX. It’s a show about the cosmos and our place in it. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Radio Public, wherever you listen or at


Speaker 14:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For years, research has shown that African-American students are far more likely to get suspended from school than their white peers, making them more likely to drop out of school and more likely to get arrested.


In 2015, Miami-Dade county public schools made national headlines. The district banned out-of-school suspensions, period. Within a year, Miami-Dade reported a drop from more than 20,000 suspensions to zero. Now, based on those numbers …


 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:53:05]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:… [inaudible 00:40:00] to zero. Now, based on those numbers, it looked like one of the country’s largest school districts turned discipline issues around overnight. Reveal teamed up with a reporter Roland [Morgarity 00:40:13] and WLRN in Miami to look into the data, and there’s a lot the numbers leave out.


Speaker 2:Yo.


Estarlon Lopez:You want to be in my blog, Miss?


Speaker 2:No, I don’t [inaudible 00:40:26]


Estarlon Lopez:You don’t want to be in my blog?


Roland M.:This is [Estarlon 00:40:28] Lopez recording his first week of ninth grade at Miami Jackson Senior High School this year. Estarlon’s a slight kid with curly hair. He’s quiet in person, but he loves to ham it up on camera and records pranks and slapstick routines.


Estarlon Lopez:Wait. That’s the Instagram.


Roland M.:His video blogs follow him on fire drills and to the lunchroom.


Estarlon Lopez:Now I’m on my way to lunch. You feel me?


Roland M.:He edits them on his phone at home while his little brothers play video games.


Estarlon Lopez:That was the other video I was going to post today. This, I did this in the morning.


Roland M.:He says so far ninth grade is a big step up over eighth grade. What was it like to go there the first day?


Estarlon Lopez:It’s better. More freedom than middle school.


Roland M.:You feel like you’re ready for that?


Estarlon Lopez:Yeah.


Roland M.:Last year at Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle School Estarlon had what he calls anger issues. He got in trouble a lot. So much he felt like the assistant principal singled him out.


Estarlon Lopez:He was telling me take off my hood, take out my headphones. Out of all the people that are there have their headphones he tells me, so I just keep walking.


Roland M.:Other times he’d mouth off to teachers or just walk out of class. When he did Estarlon would often end up a couple of miles away in another classroom.


Speaker 4:What did you find out about yourself?


Speaker 5:I found out that-


Roland M.:This is what Miami-Dade County Public Schools calls as success center. The program started in 2015. Instead of suspending students and sending them home unsupervised the idea is to help students keep up with their work and get counseling.


Speaker 4:Did y’all hear that? She said she found out from doing the survey that she can make better things happen for herself.


Roland M.:Estarlon says some of what he learned at the success center really helped him.


Estarlon Lopez:For example, how do you want to be treated? Then you’ve got to write a whole page of how you want to be treated and how you don’t want to be treated and stuff.


Roland M.:But Estarlon’s mom, Jocelyn Guerrero, says there were also times when Estarlon just got sent home. When that happened she’d get an automated call from the school district.


Jocelyn G.:[Spanish 00:42:29]


Roland M.:“How is it that they can suspend your kid and then you’ll get a call saying he was absent for three days?”, she asks. Hayden [Dallup 00:42:41] is the father of another Miami middle schooler. He says the same thing happened to his daughter last year in seventh grade. She called him after she got in a fight with another student.


Hayden Dallup:She said, “Daddy, hurry up.” She was crying. “Hurry up. Hurry up. Come to the school.” I said, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” “Please come to the school because they’re suspending me because-“


Roland M.:Hayden went in to talk with school administrators.


Hayden Dallup:They spoke to me and said, “Your daughter’s suspended for 10 days effective today. She won’t be back until a certain day.”


Roland M.:Hayden says the school didn’t give him anything in writing, which is required by State law. I told him the district had band suspensions more than a year earlier.


Hayden Dallup:No one has ever mentioned that to me that no student not supposed to get suspended anymore. Never. Never, never, never. I’m pretty sure most of those parents out there don’t know it either.


Roland M.:The school principal didn’t return calls seeking comment, but Hayden says his daughter served two 10-day out of school suspensions that didn’t get recorded that way. In school records missing that many days in a row get counted as excessive absences. The year the no suspension role went into effect the number of excessive absences skyrocketed districtwide. From about 33,000 to well over 50,000.


I asked district administrators how to explain such a big jump. In an e-mail, a spokesperson speculated principals could be doing a better job reporting attendance, but the pattern is also consistent with what parents, teachers, and students at more than a half-dozen schools told me; that kids are being sent home for misbehavior without being marked suspended.


Speaker 8:Okay. Watch the fuck out. What the fuck out, my dude.


Roland M.:There was another big change in the district’s data the same year they banned suspensions. This is from a video posted on YouTube. It’s a fight at the entrance of a local high school.


Speaker 8:[crosstalk 00:44:34] Yo, yo, clap that shit. Clap that shit. Yo.


Roland M.:Four girls are rolling around on the concrete throwing punches while a security guard calls for backup. Three different students are recording with their smartphones. It goes on for about 40 seconds.


Speaker 8:They still going.


Roland M.:Then adults are able to pull the girls apart. That video was uploaded June 7, 2016. Right around the end of the school year. According to data from the State Department of Education, this would’ve been one of only two staff had to break up at Miami Southridge High School that year. The year before the same school reported more than 70 fights, and if you look at the data across the school district you start to see a pattern. Brownsville Middle School went from 108 fights to zero. Cutler Bay, 77 to zero. Madison Middle School reported no fights even though one fight at the school made the nightly news.


Speaker 9:At 11:00, a Madison Middle School student beaten up so badly by classmates he had to go the hospital. His mother said he has a broken jaw and she-


Roland M.:Remember Estarlon, the video blogger? His school went from reporting 40 fights to zero.


Estarlon Lopez:Zero? That’s a lie.


Jocelyn G.:[inaudible 00:45:44]


Estarlon Lopez:That’s a lie. There’s lots of fights.


Roland M.:Estarlon says he has a hard time imagining his middle school without the fights. Robert Malone was one Estarlon’s favorite teachers at the school. He’s been a regular substitute there for years. In the last year, suspensions were allowed the school suspended close to 40% of the student body. I asked Robert if things had improved since then.


Robert Malone:Now it’s they say manageable. I say that with, really, hesitation because if you see what manageable is you’re like, “Wow. This is manageable?” They try, but it’s a struggle.


Roland M.:Overall, Robert says Estarlon’s school just didn’t have a good system for managing discipline. School staff were reluctant to go on the record, but I spoke to teachers at four different schools who shared similar stories. Paperwork gets backed up. Schools sometimes don’t have anybody to supervise students who get kicked out of class. Robert says all this makes it hard to teach.


Robert Malone:The picture. What’s the big picture? The big picture is having 30 kids, 25 to 30 kids in your classroom and having them to learn, and if you got four or five cats, I refer to them as knuckleheads, being a disruption we can’t do that.


Roland M.:Schools that have felt the impact of Miami-Dade’s policy changes the most are largely schools with a high concentration of poverty and all the challenges that brings. Students who didn’t get enough sleep, students who have to move a lot, students who have grown up with a parent behind bars or in a neighborhood wrecked by gun violence. To really make a dent in all that Robert says …


Robert Malone:You need to have more committed counselors. You probably need to have probably a couple of therapists on site.


Roland M.:Instead of sending kids to success centers offsite Robert says the district should work to improve the way discipline is handled inside schools.


Robert Malone:Whatever goes on in the success center, is that changing behavior? Clearly, it don’t appear to be.


Roland M.:The district has said from the start that the big drop in suspensions shows their programs are working. Alberto [Corvalo 00:47:48] is the school superintendent. Here is speaking to the Miami Herald Editorial Board last spring.


Alberto Corvalo:The data is compelling. We went from dozens of thousands of students being suspended annually to first year, 4,500 students being referred to success centers.


Roland M.:And zero suspensions. Miami-Dade wasn’t the first district to try something like this. Five years ago a school district outside Seattle called Highline tried to get to zero out of school suspensions, except in cases that endanger students or staff. Highline superintendent, Susan Enfield, is the one who initiated the change.


Susan Enfield:I think it ended up being a lot bigger and harder than folks had anticipated.


Roland M.:What it meant, Enfield says, was changing the basic relationships between adults and kids in a school.


Susan Enfield:I actually had a middle and a high school student come in who had been suspended multiple times, and as they were talking about the multiple times they were suspended I kept waiting to see if any of the adults in the room would ask the one question that really needed to be asked. Finally, I realized no one was going ask it, so I raised my hand and said, “At any point during the months and years that you’ve been experiencing this, did any adult at your school ask you why? Why are you upset?” The answer from both of them was no.


Roland M.:Highline spent a year holding community meetings and doing planning sessions with a group of 40 principals and teachers. They hired more staff and set up something like Miami-Dade success centers inside each middle and high school, but there were still lots of problems.


Susan Enfield:Principals, in an effort to bring their numbers down, in some cases were just sending kids home and not calling it a suspension so their numbers would look good, which is actually kind of illegal and unethical. On more than one occasion I’ve had to get in front of principals and say, “Look, you guys, I am not interested in fake data. I am not interested in artificially low numbers.”


Roland M.:In Miami-Dade schools, the number of fights reported went from more than 5,000 to 300 in a single year. A spokeswoman explained that drop in an e-mail by saying the district had been reporting some fights they didn’t need to. What does that mean? The district started differentiating between minor and major fights. If a fight stops when an adult says, “Knock it off,” that’s a minor fight. Those don’t get reported publicly. If it takes an adult getting physically involved or if somebody’s hurt, that’s a major fight that would have to get recorded to the state.


Steve Gallon:Historically, in my 28 years, a fight is a fight, is a fight.


Roland M.:That’s Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon. He’s a former teacher and school principal. He says he doesn’t remember many fights that adults could break up just by telling students to stop.


Steve Gallon:In my experience, physical altercation between two young people, that requires physical intervention.


Roland M.:Gallon says it’s hard to take the numbers at face value. Neighboring Broward County is a much smaller school district, but state data showed nine times as many fights as in Miami-Dade.


Steve Gallon:I think it is something that, quite frankly, raises more questions than it does provide answers.


Roland M.:What are some of the questions on your mind?


Steve Gallon:Does this data reflect the reality of what’s happening in the schools?


Roland M.:He’s not convinced it does. The thing is, if kids are still being sent home unsupervised and the district doesn’t know about it, it’s not going to stop. Miami has been trying to address discipline in other ways too. They’ve hired additional counselors for some middle schoolers and sent principals to special trainings, but data is what drives big picture decisions.


Speaker 1:That story from reporter, Roland Morgarity. The Miami-Dade School District continues to say out of school suspensions have dropped to zero and that fights are becoming more and more rare.


Speaker 15:Go!


Speaker 1:But fights on school grounds are still showing up online.


Speaker 16:That’s enough!


Speaker 15:[inaudible 00:51:48]


Speaker 2:For more of our education coverage go We’ve got an in-depth look at how companies leverage loans to make money off of public schools. Today’s show was edited by Suzanne [Rebra 00:52:05] and Debra George. Emily Harris was our lead producer. Thanks to our partners on today’s show, public radio station WLRN in Miami, Houston Public Media, and the Houston Chronicle. Bruce Wilson provided research help. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. He had help this week from [Romteam Aribluey 00:52:21], Kathrine Raymando and Kat [Shooknick 00:52:24]. Amy Pile’s our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Commorado, Lighting.


Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation. The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.


 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:53:05]

Hannah Young is the former the Director of Audience at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, leading Reveal’s digital and social efforts. Using human-centered design, she and her team work to find new ways to expand the reach of Reveal’s journalism and engage more meaningfully with audiences across platforms.

Previously, Hannah was a Butler Koshland Fellow at Reveal focusing on creative engagement approaches in public journalism. Before that, Hannah worked at Code for America, where she led the Brigade program and grew it to a network of more than 50,000 civic tech volunteers in more than 80 cities across the U.S. During her time there, Brigade was responsible for nearly two thirds of total growth in the civic tech community in the country.