AUSTIN, Texas — Texas education officials thought they owed the federal government $33 million for spending too little on special education, but revised estimates show the state may owe up to $223 million.

Time is limited for the state education agency to devise a solution. Lawmakers plan to adjourn at the end of May, leaving just a few weeks for legislators to shift more funding to special education to avoid at least some of the fine.

“This is an opportunity to correct past wrongs,” said Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas. “If there’s a window, it’s very quickly closing.”

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Federal law prohibits states from reducing funding for special education services — a law that is designed to prevent states from shifting more of the financial burden of special education to the federal government.

If a state reduces funding, the U.S. Department of Education reduces the amount of federal aid by the same amount. The $33 million figure, upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, represents how much money the state reduced its special education budget by in 2012. The federal government court victory also requires the state to recalculate its special education spending.

After applying the new formula, Texas may owe additional penalties for cuts in 2017, 2018 and 2019, said DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. About $111.6 of the new penalty estimate represents money the state could have spent in the current budget year, Culbertson said. The TEA is working with the U.S. Department of Education and the state legislature to see how it can resolve that portion of the penalty, she added.

The total penalty amounts to nearly a quarter of Texas’s annual $1 billion federal grant for special education.

The increased sanctions come as Texas is under a federal directive to improve its dismal track record of serving students with special needs. Starting in 2004, the state imposed a de facto cap on the number of special education students school districts could serve, a Houston Chronicle investigation found in 2016. While the national average was 13 percent of students receiving special education services, Texas limited school districts to 8.5 percent. The federal government investigated and confirmed the existence of an arbitrary cap.

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