AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Education Agency will hire more special education staff and provide special education services to students who were illegally denied resources in the past in response to a federal investigation.

The 13-page plan comes after the U.S. Department of Education found TEA illegally led school districts across the state to delay or deny special education services to students because of an arbitrary enrollment cap. Problems with special education were brought to light by a series of investigative reports in the Houston Chronicle.

For more than a decade, TEA judged a school district’s’ performance based in part on the percentage of students receiving special education services. But the benchmark, set at 8.5 percent, prompted school districts to limit access to special education resources, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs said in a letter to Texas education officials last week.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The department instructed TEA to craft a corrective action plan, detailing how it would comply with four corrective action steps intended to better monitor school districts and offer more resources to students.

The federal government did not set a deadline for the plan, but Gov. Greg Abbott instructed TEA to act quickly, imposing a one week deadline. It’s unclear what penalties the state could face from the federal government if it does not comply.

“This corrective action plan provides the state of Texas the chance to make meaningful, lasting change in how we educate and support children with special needs,” said Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

“We are approaching this planning process with the seriousness that it requires and hope to solicit the kind of collective feedback, support and collaboration that our students deserve as we work to earn back the trust parents place in us for their children. My top priority has and continues to be to improve outcomes for all students in Texas,” Morath added.

TEA officials said the corrective steps outlined in their plan will require additional public input before it is submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The state and federal response comes more than a year after the Houston Chronicle investigation that found tens of thousands of students with disabilities were denied special education services because of the cap.

TEA officials have repeatedly said the benchmark was not a cap, and instead was an “indicator” of performance.

But the federal report confirmed districts viewed the enrollment target as a cap.

“While TEA did not specifically direct (districts) to limit the percentage of students identified as children with disabilities, the performance indicator certainly affected district policies and procedures relating to the identification of children with disabilities,” said Kimberly Richey, the department’s acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, last week.

TEA eliminated the policy two months after the Chronicle’s investigation. In May, Abbott signed a law prohibiting the use of a performance indicator based solely on the number of students receiving special education services. Nationally, 13 percent of students receive special education.

The federal probe began in late 2016, after the Chronicle spoke to dozens of teachers, educators and disability rights groups who say schools have repeatedly denied services to students with dyslexia, autism and other disabilities. Federal education officials reviewed documents, data and met with parents and school officials from 12 school districts including Houston, Laredo, Austin and Leander.

The department found the 8.5 percent indicator “contributed to a statewide pattern of practices that demonstrate that TEA did not ensure that all (districts) in the state properly identified, located and evaluated all children with disabilities who were in need of special education and related services,” the department wrote.

In addition to capping special education, Texas schools also violated other federal regulations, including the use of alternative programs.

Several school districts in Texas have employed “Response to Intervention,” an approach that involves addressing learning barriers in a mainstream classroom, rather than through special education programs. While the Department of Education allows RTI, schools cannot require teachers to try it before referring a student for special education.

Schools were doing just that, according to the federal education department, which found a “general understanding” among educators that students were required to complete RTI before offering special education services.

As a result, the education department ordered the TEA to implement several corrective action measures.

The state must show that it is monitoring the way districts evaluate students suspected of having a disability to ensure schools are providing students a “free appropriate public education,” a tenet of federal special education laws.

Schools must provide special education evaluations to students that were previously denied services. For students that already receive special education, educators may need to determine if those students need more academic support. The state must also submit a plan, including a timeline, for how it will train educators on RTI, the state’s dyslexia program and other special education laws.

© 2018 Houston Chronicle
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC