Feds, State Demand Texas Education Agency Fix Special Education

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) determined that a decline in special education services offered to Texas school children resulted from policies instituted by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). These policies prevented eligible students from having access to valuable educational programs.

Federal education officials concluded on Thursday that Texas failed “to ensure” that school children “in need of special education and related services were identified, located, and evaluated, regardless of the severity of their disability,” as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Ruth Ryder, acting director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) housed within USED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) told Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath that the TEA failed to guarantee a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) “to all children with disabilities.” Ryder noted the TEA also failed to fulfill its “general supervisory and monitoring responsibilities” as required by IDEA.

The USED official told TEA it must take corrective actions to ensure the state properly monitors school district special education evaluations, develop a plan and timeline to reevaluate students previously denied services, as well as create a plan and timeline so that TEA provides guidance to schools on how to identify and educate students with disabilities. However, USED did not stipulate time frames for implementation of these directives.

This probe began in October 2016 when USED ordered the TEA to demonstrate the state did not prevent children with disabilities from receiving special education services and acted in compliance with state and federal laws. Breitbart Texas reported this followed a Houston Chronicle article which alleged school districts that provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students got penalized, thereby capping services at this purported threshold.

Breitbart Texas reported the TEA maintained they never set a cap, limit, or policy on the number or percentage of students that school districts can serve in special education. The agency insisted it never imposed fines or took punitive actions when school districts provided special ed services to more than 8.5 percent of students. The TEA also presented the 8.5 percent as an indicator, not a target. This percentage was at issue because Texas ranked noticeably below the reported national average for special education enrollment of 13 percent.

In November 2016, the TEA issued a reminder to school districts of their responsibilities under IDEA to eliminate any confusion. This included the use of “child find” and Response to Intervention (RTI), strategies intended to prevent the misidentification or over-identification of students in need of special education services.

The federally-mandated Child Find requires schools to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities who are in need of early intervention or special education services. It applies to all children from birth through age 21 and includes youngsters who attend public and private schools, as well as those considered highly mobile, illegal immigrants, and who are wards of the state.

The TEA also contested allegations they surreptitiously created the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS), which tracks special education metrics. The state legislature created PBMAS in 2004. According to TEA, it got reviewed annually with input from stakeholders including those representing special education.

Breitbart Texas reported the feds toured Texas schools, as part of their investigation. Agency officials spoke to parents, school administrators, and teachers about special education access. Even Texas House Speaker Joe Straus jumped into the controversy, penning a letter to Morath in October 2016. Straus advised the 2017 state legislature would “make special education services available to all students who need them, while ensuring that schools do not identify students for special education when it isn’t appropriate.”

Subsequently, the Texas legislature voted to end the special education “indicator.” Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill, SB 160, into law on May 22, 2017. It became effective immediately.

Ultimately, USED determined the TEA capped the percentage of students eligible to receive special education services.

On Thursday, Abbott responded to the USED findings in a letter to Morath. He demanded the TEA craft an initial corrective action plan draft within the next seven days to jumpstart the process of reforming special education in Texas. The governor expressed “deep concern” with the situation. He stated more must be done to adequately address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students.

“The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of TEA to hold districts accountable, are worthy of criticism,” said Abbott. The governor noted that of “particular concern were local compliance failures stemming from the long-standing 8.5 percent representation policy.”

Abbott told the TEA they “must take steps now to significantly increase the oversight provided to ensure our special education students are receiving the services they deserve.”

The governor acknowledged this issue began more than a decade before Morath became education commissioner. He underscored that “our parents and students demand significant actions be taken now to improve special education in Texas.”

Abbott stated that the TEA’s initial plan will be shared with representatives of parent groups, special education advocacy groups, plus school administrators and educators throughout the state. He asked the agency to develop “potential legislative recommendations” to help ensure local school districts comply with all federal and state laws regarding special education.

Morath responded to Abbott’s comments in a statement:

“I share Governor Abbott’s urgency to quickly address the issues identified in this federal monitoring report. More importantly, I share the Governor’s commitment to doing what’s right for special education students in our public schools.

Since becoming Commissioner, I have worked to strengthen the supports provided to our parents and school systems in properly identifying students in need of services, and then ensuring those services are delivered. For example, we have added significant resources focused on increasing technical assistance and training for our school systems, including 39 statewide special education support staff in the last year. I am committing today that there will be more.

The corrective action plan called for by the Governor will outline the specific steps TEA will take to address all the identified issues. Parent and special education advocacy group representatives will play an ongoing integral role in helping shape this plan, as well as all efforts of the agency in the years ahead. My top priority has and continues to be to improve outcomes for all students in Texas.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also stated, “Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under IDEA. I’ve worked directly with Commissioner Morath on resolving these issues, and I appreciate the Texas Education Agency’s efforts to ensure all children with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated, and served under IDEA. While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential.”

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