In a seven-page letter, Texas education officials told the U.S. Department of Education it never set a cap, limit, or policy on the number or percent of students that school districts can, or should, serve in special education.
The State asserts that reports in the Houston Chronicle arguing otherwise are false.
Federal officials ordered the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to show they did not prevent children with disabilities from receiving services and they comply with special education laws in response to two articles by the Houston newspaper which alleged school districts got penalized if they provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students, Breitbart Texas reported.
TEA Deputy Commissioner of Academics Penny Schwinn called the Houston Chronicle’s claims inaccurate in the letter submitted on November 2 to federal education officials in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS).
“TEA strongly disagrees with statements in the article and with the overall premise of the article that Texas educators have been engaging in concerted, widespread efforts to deny eligible students with disabilities with needed special education services based on the special education representation indicator in the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS),” wrote Schwinn.
PBMAS is a data system that reports annually on the performance of school districts and charter schools in select areas including bilingual education/English as a second language, career and technical education, and special education, according to the agency’s press release.
The TEA contested the Houston newspaper’s allegation that they “quietly devised” the PBMAS system and withheld information from the federal government and Texas Legislature. Schwinn wrote the agency provided federal and state officials with information about the system and its indicators in various reviews. She added PBMAS, created in 2004 in response to state legislation, gets reviewed annually with the input from various stakeholder groups, including those representing special education.
Schwinn countered on the Houston Chronicle’s centerpiece argument that PBMAS special education “Indicator 10” led to financial savings. She wrote: “The allegation that the special education representation indicator is designed to reduce special education enrollment in order to reduce the amount of money the state has to spend on special education is clearly false.”
The letter addressed five questions OSERS asked about the PBMAS indicator, including if a systematic denial of special education services to children with disabilities occurred. Schwinn responded: “Allegations that TEA issued fines, conducted on-site monitoring visits, required the hiring of consultants, etc. when districts provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of their students are entirely false.”
Schwinn detailed events behind the TEA’s interactions with the Laredo Independent School District, asserting the Houston Chronicle’s depiction did not accurately reflect “either the purpose of TEA’s on-site visit” or “the district’s required response to that visit.” She explained that special ed rate declines pre-dated PBMAS. TEA attributed this to “multiple factors”–the Texas Reading Initiative, implemented to help struggling students; changes to the state’s accountability systems related to the inclusion of students with disabilities, and improved district-level policy and practices for special education eligibility.
“TEA does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities,” wrote Schwinn, adding they have not received any formal or informal complaints “demonstrating that specific school districts have engaged in such an effort to deny eligible students with disabilities the services they need based on the special education representation indicator in PBMAS.”
Schwinn acknowledged “…TEA has been engaged in consistent conversations over the last four years to adjust and eventually eliminate this indicator.” For now, they say they will not use Indicator 10 for PBMAS staging purposes.
The TEA official noted the Houston Chronicle’s “many inaccuracies” may have contributed to confusion statewide. The agency intends to send letters to all Texas school districts reminding them of their federal “child find” obligations.
Breitbart Texas reported that “child find,” a U.S. Department of Education mandate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), dictates that all school districts find, identify, and evaluate every child who “may need special education services” even if a school does not provide these services to the student. “Child Find” applies to all youngsters from birth through age 21 and includes students who attend public and private schools, as well as those considered highly mobile, illegal immigrants, and who are wards of the state.
Schwinn stated the TEA also intends to clarify their “monitoring efforts with regard to preventing the over-identification of students with disabilities.” A criticism of school diagnosed student disabilities has been the nationwide increase in pathologizing children’s behaviors into mental illnesses, resulting in over-identification of special needs, Breitbart Texas reported.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus jumped into this special ed controversy prompted by the Houston Chronicle’s allegations. He asked the TEA to make changes to the PBMAS indicator or suspend using it to ensure students in need are not denied services. However, he cautioned: “I also know that we don’t want the pendulum to again swing too far toward over-populating special education, and that enactment of a better system may require additional resources.”
The TEA website houses substantiating documentation serviced with the OSERS letter.
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