AUSTIN, Texas — Texas enrolled its largest number of students in special education programs last school year, the same year the state’s education department officially got rid of an arbitrary cap it put in place more than a decade ago.

In the 2016-17 school year, 477,281 students received special education services, an increase of about 14,000 students compared to the previous school year. That’s about 8.9 percent of Texas students receiving special education resources, according to the latest data from the state’s Public Education Information Management System.

The increase in enrollment, while only a fraction of a percent, is noteworthy given a policy the Texas Education Agency quietly enacted in 2004 that directed school districts to limit special education services to no more than 8.5 percent of students.

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A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that tens of thousands of students with disabilities were denied access to services because of the de-facto cap. TEA eliminated the policy in November, two months after the Houston Chronicle revealed the existence of what officials described as the 8.5 percent “benchmark.”

A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency said districts are obligated to identify and provide services to all students who require special education services.

“All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need,” said Lauren Callahan, the spokeswoman.

The agency has previously denied that it kept students with disabilities out of special education programs, saying the benchmark was not a cap or a target but an “indicator” of performance by school districts.

In 2016, Texas served the lowest percentage of special education students of any state in the country. As the state was setting the 8.5 percent target, about 13 percent of students nationally were receiving special education services.

“Unfortunately, changing the culture of denial is proving to be a slow process,” said Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “Our special education rate remains far lower than the national average, and we still hear from parents every week whose children are falling through the cracks.”

Earlier this year, the state passed legislation banning the state from ever setting a target on the number of students who can enroll in special education.

Rep. Gene Wu, a Democratic lawmaker from Houston who introduced the legislation, called last year’s enrollment increase “crazy low.”

“It’s not just about pushing the numbers up,” Wu said. “What do you do with the kids who are way behind because they weren’t given the support they needed?”

© 2017 Houston Chronicle
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