The Texas Education Agency led schools to illegally delay or deny special education services to students statewide, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Education Department.
In a 14-page letter, regulators concluded that the agency’s 2004 decision to effectively cap the number of students that could be enrolled in special education at 8.5 percent violated federal laws that require schools to serve all students with disabilities.
The result was that students who should have been getting help with their learning disabilities in many cases were instead left to struggle in regular classrooms with few resources, as parents fought with school officials for their children’s federally guaranteed rights.
“Texas students with disabilities who have been ignored and shunned by the special education system have some measure of validation today,” said Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas who added that the report came as “no surprise” to the students and their families.
The Texas Education Agency eliminated the target in late 2016, but its effects linger. From 2003 to 2017, the number of children identified as having disabilities declined by about 32,000 students, while total enrollment in Texas schools grew by more than 1 million students, according to the report.
The policy, the report found, was directly responsible for a decline in the state’s overall special education rate from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016, despite a longtime national average of roughly 13 percent.
The agency put pressure on districts, such as Austin, that placed a higher percentage of students in special education by lowering their scores in state ratings, the report indicated. Austin’s rate had hovered around 12 percent but started dropping about two years after the policy was enacted, from about 12 percent in 2006 to 10.6 percent in 2016.
Regulators also found that struggling students who should have been referred for an evaluation were often provided other services in the general classroom for extended periods of time, despite federal law requiring schools to evaluate students suspected of having disabilities, among other findings.
The report directs the state agency to take steps to ensure all students in need of services are receiving them, including those that were wrongly denied, within a timeline agreed upon by the state agency and federal government.
The TEA, however, will have to answer sooner to Gov. Greg Abbott, who admonished the agency in a letter Thursday.
Abbott ordered the agency to produce a draft of a corrective action plan within seven days, which he said should be shared with representatives of parent groups, special education advocacy groups and state educators and administrators.
“The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students and the failure of TEA to hold districts accountable are worthy of criticism,” Abbott said in the letter. “At the state and local level, the practices that led to the (Education Department) monitoring letter will end.”
Abbott also requested the agency send him legislative recommendations for ensuring school districts are complying with all federal and state special education laws.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement that he shared Abbott’s urgency and “commitment to doing what’s right for special education students in our public schools.” Morath said the agency has increased training for school systems and added statewide special education support staff in the past year.
“My top priority has and continues to be to improve outcomes for all students in Texas,” Morath said.
While agency officials have said the standard was not meant to drive down identification of students with disabilities, they’ve acknowledged that it had a role in doing just that, as Thursday’s report confirms.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she has worked with Morath to resolve these issues, and while she acknowledged there is still more work to be done, state leaders have assured her of their commitment to students with disabilities.
“Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs,” DeVos said in a written statement. “Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).”