AUSTIN (AP) – This week lawmakers will examine one of the most expensive and controversial questions facing school districts: what to do with undisciplined kids.
State law requires districts to set up Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs for students from elementary to high school who are removed from their classes for “mandatory or discretionary disciplinary reasons.” These programs can be inside the schools or at a different location and some school districts contact private companies to operate them.
One thing all the programs share is expense. In March, the advocacy group Texas Appleseed reported that the Dallas Independent School District spent $11.3 million on disciplining kids, a total that does not include the $20.3 million cost of campus security in Dallas.
Last year the Republican-controlled Legislature cut spending by more than $500 per-student last year, a move that forced schools to cut budgets this year, and there are more cuts coming in the fall. Therefore school districts are looking for places to save money and in Dallas, special schools for kids with disciplinary problems cost the district $9 million.
Texas Appleseed found that the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program cost the district $57,000 per student a year, more than a veteran teacher’s salary. That’s about seven times more than what a Texas school district spends per student on average.
And since the state school finance system only pays when a student shows up for class, referring 22,827 students for out-of-school suspension and into alternative programs last school year cost the district at least $2 million in state funds, the group found.
In terms of the state’s share, the Texas Education Agency expects 94,819 to be enrolled in Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in 2012 at a cost of $14.7 million. Schools districts across the state will spend much more. Groups across the political spectrum agree there must be more cost-effective ways to encourage good behavior, keep classrooms safe and provide a good education.
So it’s no surprise the House Public Education Committee on Monday will hear testimony about Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs as well as Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs, which schools set up for students expelled from their districts. The lawmakers want to hear from experts on how these programs are working, whether they need to be changed and whether technology could make them better.
Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said lawmakers will follow up to see how the laws they pass are implemented.
“Anytime you take a child out of normal circumstances it’s going to be extra cost because of the extra cost of staff, not that we’d say it’s too expensive and just do away with it,” he said. “The question is how can we do it better, and how can it be effective so it isn’t so expensive.”
In July, the Council on State Government and Texas A&M University studied nearly a million Texas 7th-grade student records to see how school discipline programs affected student achievement and the juvenile justice system. They found nearly 15 percent had been assigned to the disciplinary program and 7 percent were sent to a juvenile justice program, even though only 3 percent of such referrals were mandated by state law. Nearly 75 percent of special education students had been suspended.
Schools expelled more boys than girls and more minorities than whites, and suspended or expelled students were three-times more likely to be in contact with law enforcement, according to the study. Lastly, while half of Texas schools enforced the disciplinary programs as expected, 22 percent had higher discipline rates than expected, and 27 percent less. The authors said this is proof that some schools are doing a better job with discipline than others.
“Nonwhite students and students with specific educational disabilities were especially likely to be removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons,” the report’s author’s concluded. “In addition, students who were suspended or expelled were at increased risk of repeating a grade, dropping out, or coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.”
While the report analyzed the problem, finding solutions will require parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers to unravel the causes. Creating better relationships between students, parents, teachers and administrators will be vital, the authors said.
Eissler said he wants to learn more Monday about how younger children and special education students are treated and how schools are enforcing discipline. He cited anecdotal reports of police issuing citations to young children with bad consequences for the kids.
The Senate Education Committee will also investigate these issues. This is one case where everyone hopes they can find a better, more cost-effective solution.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)