By Alejandra Matos
April 25, 2018
AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Education Agency plans to spend nearly $212 million over the next five years in an attempt to fix systemic problems with special education in Texas schools, according to a final action plan released this week.
Finding funds for new programs is likely to be a major challenge when state lawmakers return in January, but officials are confident they’ve already found the money to launch the program.
TEA officials acknowledged that students with special needs lag far behind their peers in reading and math skills, and say their plan includes efforts to boost academic achievement as well as address corrective actions required by the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal agency determined that the state illegally set up an 8.5 percent benchmark — some critics considered it a de facto cap — on the number of students receiving special education services, well below the national average of 13 percent.
A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that the practice led school districts to deny access to special education services to tens of thousands of students with disabilities.
The final version of the plan comes after months of draft proposals and feedback sessions with parents, educators, education advocates and students. The state is aiming to repair a decade-old practice that drastically reduced the number of students receiving special education services.
TEA officials have repeatedly said the 8.5 percent benchmark was not a cap but an “indicator of performance.” But in practice, districts used the number as a cap, the Department of Education found, and denied or delayed services for children across the state.
TEA eliminated the policy two months after the Houston Chronicle’s investigation. In May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law prohibiting the use of performance indicators based solely on the number of students receiving special education services.
The state will now increase school monitoring to ensure districts are meeting special education laws, train teachers and staff, increase family engagement and identify previously unidentified students who may be eligible for special education services. While the plan will require millions of dollars in funding, TEA officials said they have the money needed to put the plan in place.
The agency does plan to ask the state legislature for more money in 2019 to cover costs associated with evaluating students who may need special education and offering compensatory services.
“The Texas Education Agency is committed to providing the quality of support needed to improve outcomes for students with disabilities,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “This strategic action plan provides a solid foundation for our state to make meaningful, lasting change in how we educate and support children with special needs.”
Governor Greg Abbott, who issued a scathing letter after the federal investigation, praised TEA’s plan.
“I am pleased with the urgency and commitment from the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Morath to take significant steps to reform the special education system in Texas,” Abbott said in a statement. “Going forward, we will continue to work with parents and educators to ensure our students with special needs receive the services they deserve.”
In the next five years, the state plans to spend $90 million on professional development, $65 million on compensatory services, and nearly $20 million on new monitoring staff. Penny Schwinn, the state’s deputy commissioner of academics, said the corrective action plan is only a starting point in overhauling special education in Texas.
She said TEA will continue to meet with parents, advocacy groups and students to ensure schools are meeting their academic needs.
“It’s step one,” Schwinn said. “The really hard work, and the test for the agency, happens moving forward.”
Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said the funding for the corrective action plan is “only a down payment” for meeting the needs of students in special education. He also said the state needs to work with colleges and universities to ensure there are enough qualified special education teachers.
“It’s encouraging that there is a tremendous opportunity to make changes in the system,” he said. “But so many of the details are left to be determined that it is still unclear whether or at, at the end of the day, systems will improve and be more responsive for students.”