After a decade of effectively capping the number of students identified for special education, Texas developed an extensive, multimillion plan for how it plans to rectify what was deemed a violation of federal special education law.
But in a review, the federal office of special education programs says it wants to see additional corrective actions by the state, and that it plans to send a team to visit next year to make sure that work is being done.
A disability advocacy group says it appreciates that the federal government did not simply rubber-stamp the state plan and that federal officials plan to visit Texas again.
“We just hope that they will get outside Austin, and visit with parents and educators across the state,” said Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas.
A 2016 investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that special education enrollment in Texas had been declining for years, driven by districts’ efforts to meet a state enrollment benchmark of 8.5 percent.
The articles captured stories of children whose disabilities would automatically qualify them for special education services in other states.
For example, a young child with Down syndrome was initially denied special education services because he could read on grade level. Another child, who was born prematurely and was legally blind, was denied services because she could hold written materials close enough to her face to read.
The federal office of special education programs found Texas in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in January, after conducting its own investigation and holding a listening tour around the state.
In a January report outlining the violations, federal officials said they were told that the state’s dyslexia guidelines required that children with difficulty reading must present an additional disabling condition before they could even be evaluated for special education services. This runs counter to federal special education law, which does not require a child to be suspected of multiple disabilities before a screening takes place.
Federal officials also criticized Texas’ use of response to intervention. RTI is an instructional framework that focuses on addressing problems early with students who show signs of academic weakness.
Many state educators said they thought a child had to go through multiple levels of interventions before a student could be screened for having a disability. But in 2011, the Education Department informed states that RTI can’t be used to delay or deny a special education evaluation. Teachers also said they weren’t clear about how much progress children should be making to move out of RTI.
In 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a law that would bar the Texas Education Agency from placing a cap or creating a benchmark on special education enrollment.
In a statement responding to the latest federal missive, Mike Morath, the Texas education commissioner, said the state is already making “significant progress” in carrying out its special education strategic plan.
“We continue to adhere to a commitment to transparency and engagement throughout the plan’s implementation,” he said.
Special education enrollment in Texas has now risen to about 9.2 percent of students, higher than the recent past, but still below the national average of about 13 percent. Texas may need to find an additional $3.3 billion over the next three years in order to pay for additional special education services, the Houston Chronicle has reported.
Aleman, with Disability Rights Texas, said that he hopes federal officials will take a close look at student groups he said were hit particularly hard by the old special education policy: English-language learners; students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities; and, students in foster care.
This federal review also comes at a time when the state legislature is not in session. Aleman said it’s important that state officials exercise their oversight role when they return to Austin in January. “It’s going to be just as essential to us that they’re informed and caught up to speed,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Feds Plan Fresh Oversight of Texas Spec. Ed. Plan