Texas has never set a cap or policy to limit the number of students in special education and reports that the state did so to save money are “false,” officials told federal authorities this week.

The Texas Education Agency submitted a seven-page response to the U.S. Department of Education countering claims in the Houston Chronicle that suggested the state was purposely denying children services in order to save billions of dollars by having what amounted to an 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment.

Still, as a result of concerns, TEA officials said they would no longer use the enrollment data in question to intervene with districts that have high rates of special education students.

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The newspaper told stories from families who said their children weren’t given the services they needed and suggested Texas was keeping thousands of kids out of special education as a result of a target enrollment rate.

Texas Education Agency officials have insisted that they developed an indicator — not a cap — monitoring enrollment rates to ensure that students are not inappropriately placed in special education.

Federal authorities opened an investigation into the matter recently, telling TEA last month to immediately stop using the indicator in the state’s monitoring system unless the agency could prove that no student was denied services because of it.

“TEA has never set a cap, limit or policy on the number or percent of students that districts can, or should, serve in special education,” wrote Deputy Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

She told federal officials that the article misrepresented the agency’s interactions and intentions, adding that the allegation that TEA engaged in widespread targeting of districts with special education rates higher than 8.5 percent “is not borne out by the facts.”

TEA had not received any formal or informal complaints indicating that a specific school district denied eligible students services as a result of the indicator in the so-called Performance Based Monitoring Analysis System, or PBMAS, Schwinn said.

But representatives from Disability Rights Texas said that the advocacy group did file a formal complaint demonstrating the impact of what it considered to be a cap on special education enrollment but that its concerns “were ignored.”

“Students’ futures are held in the balance while TEA refuses to claim any responsibility for the dramatic decline in services to children with disabilities,” officials from the group said in a statement.

The group expressed frustration that “the cap” wasn’t ending immediately, saying “potentially thousands of students who require special education services will continue to go needlessly without.”

Schwinn wrote to the federal officials that Texas already had been in the process of adjusting and eventually eliminating the indicator as the state continually revamps its system. Schwinn said all Texas districts would be contacted to clarify the state’s process. The state will still use the indicator to collect enrollment data, but it will be up to local districts to determine what to do with that information.

“TEA does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities despite the fact that the article states that several hundred interviews were conducted and records from several school districts were reviewed,” Schwinn wrote.

Schwinn said the PBMAS indicator reviewing special education enrollment was used solely for the purposes of ensuring that students weren’t improperly placed in special education. For decades, black and Hispanic children were over-represented in such programs, which in many cases limited their education.

Allegations that TEA “quietly devised” the PBMAS while keeping state and federal officials as well as the public “in the dark are simply incorrect,” she wrote, explaining how the system was developed with stakeholder input and is publicly adopted.

She went on to explain that TEA has only used the special education enrollment rate as a sole determinant for district intervention if it was at the more extreme range of enrollment, exceeding 15.1 percent. It will no longer do so.

Schwinn further stated that “intervention stagings” were not a TEA sanction but a means to support districts through data analysis to see if problems existed and to develop improvement plans. Districts only had to submit their plans to TEA if there were significant or multiple areas of concern.

“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% of their students are entirely false,” she wrote.

The state’s special education enrollment rate has declined significantly — and is much lower than the nation’s — since PBMAS was implemented.

However, Schwinn said that decline started in 2000, four years before the system’s use began.

“If some district staff erroneously viewed the indicator’s lowest performance range as a target rather than a data point and felt discouraged to initiate special education referrals, we believe the actions that we outline in this letter will address that,” she wrote.

Jessica Allen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, issued a statement saying federal officials will “carefully review the state’s response and, after the review is concluded, determine appropriate next steps.”

© 2016 The Dallas Morning News
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