Texas trying to fix 'illegal' special education system

Abbott speaks during an interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Greg Abbott speaks during an interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thomson Reuters

Texas education officials violated federal law when they excluded more than 100,000 students with disabilities from programs created to help them, the federal government announced.

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. 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.

Many school district staff members said they saw evaluation for federally funded special education services as a "last resort" for students who were struggling to learn.

Many school districts subjected their students to interventions in a general education environment rather than provide them with services when they were suspected of having a disability, according to a report.

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"Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act", U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement.

The Texas Tribune reports that the federal investigation found that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in effect capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized some school districts to deny services to eligible students.

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In response to Thursday's news, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, gave the state education agency seven days to draft a corrective action plan.

"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 a statement. Disability advocates say the policy has likely done immeasurable damage to kids that desperately needed, but were left out of, special education classes. Federal officials came to Texas in December that year to hear from parents whose children were denied services, and they returned last February to visit school districts.

Gov. Abbott also asked TEA to develop legislative recommendations to ensure school districts throughout Texas comply with the upcoming changes. "The project was planned by a mission-driven team, dedicated to helping improve outcomes for our special education students".

In a roundtable meeting with reporters last month, Penny Schwinn, TEA's deputy commissioner of academics, said TEA had expected to get a report from the federal government last summer - but federal officials continued to push that date back.

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

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