Federal Investigation: Texas Broke Special-Ed Laws and Intentionally Delayed Services

DALLAS (The Dallas Morning News/TNS) -

Texas schools deliberately delayed services to kids who needed special education to keep their numbers low because of a state indicator that many perceived as a cap on enrollment, federal officials found.

Many school districts used interventions in general education settings to help some children, including those with dyslexia, rather than special education services when they were suspected of having a disability, according to findings released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The department launched an investigation into the state in 2016 after a Houston Chronicle report that suggested schools were trying to keep kids out of special education because the Texas Education Agency set an indicator on such enrollment at 8.5 percent.

TEA officials have said that indicator was not a cap but designed to help districts ensure they weren’t inappropriately sending students to special education. Some Texas schools have been cited previously for funneling minority students into such programs, where they are not held to the same accountability standards.

But the federal investigation found that the indicator, put in place in 2004, instead triggered a massive decline in special education as schools tried to stay under that indicator to avoid state scrutiny. Enrollment for such programs dropped by 32,000 students from the 2003-04 school year to 2016-17, even though Texas’ total enrollment grew by more than a million.

“Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under” federal special education laws.

DeVos’ statement notes that she’s working with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

Gov. Greg Abbott sent Morath a letter today giving him seven days to prepare a corrective action plan and get input from parents, advocacy groups and school administrators.

“While the problems identified in the report started long before your arrival at TEA, our parents and students demand significant actions be taken now to improve special education in Texas,” Abbott wrote.

TEA has since scrapped the indicator and lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting the use of such indicators to solely measure the total percentage or number of kids receiving special education or related services.

The Department of Education held community forums across the state as part of the investigation, including in Richardson. There families told stories of having to borrow against their homes to hire attorneys in order to fight school administrators they say were denying their children services.

Various districts, including Dallas, have conducted their own investigations into special education services and are working to revamp their programs.

The news comes as TEA remains mired in controversy over a contract that was supposed to help the state fix some of its problems in special education.

Many raised concerns over a no-bid contract awarded to a company called SPEDx, which was to collect and analyze data to help school districts come up with individualized plans for their special education programs as well as to help Texas with long-term solutions.

But Morath cancelled the $4.4 million contract last month, saying it could not be effective because so many lost faith in the project.

The state’s new special education director had filed a federal complaint alleging misconduct about the contract and was fired from the agency the next day, according to the Texas Tribune.