Texas Education Agency finalizes plan to improve state’s special education system

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The Texas Education Agency submitted its final corrective action plan to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs on April 23 in response to a Jan. 11 report in which the U.S. Department of Education found the TEA failed to ensure all special education students in the state were given access to appropriate services.

According to the federal report, the TEA failed to identify, locate and evaluate children with disabilities and to monitor school districts to ensure they met requirements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The heart of the violation can be tied to an 8.5 percent indicator set in 2004 as a general target for the number of students in a school district who should have received special education services. Although TEA officials said the number was not an enforced requirement, OSEP found it caused some school districts to take actions to decrease the percentage of special education students to 8.5 percent or lower.

According to the TEA, about 8.8 percent of all Texas students—a percentage that has continued to decrease over the last 15 years—receive special education services, compared to the national average of 13 percent. The indicator was suspended in 2016.

Some of the actions identified in the TEA’s plan include implementing a statewide special education professional development system, bolstering resources allocated to special education to increase on-site support and creating documents to explain how special education is financed.

“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,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said in an April 24 statement.

In both Humble and New Caney ISDs, the percentage of students enrolled in special education has decreased since the indicator was set in 2004. NCISD’s special education enrollment declined from 13.5 percent in 2003-04 to 8.7 percent in the 2017-18 academic year—which is still above the 8.5 percent indicator—according to the district enrollment statistics.

Kristi Shofner, NCISD executive director of instruction, said this decline is attributed to requirements that students meet higher federal standards to qualify as having a learning disability.

In the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, NCISD received a status of “needs intervention” by the TEA’s annual Texas Academic Performance Reports. According to the TEA, districts receive the status based on the evaluation of several indicators, including performance-based analysis, data integrity, uncorrected noncompliance and audit findings.

Shofner said the district received a “needs intervention” status because the majority of students utilizing special education services now participate in testing at the appropriate grade level in the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness program.

In HISD, special education enrollment decreased from 9.5 percent in 2003-4 to 7.8 percent in 2017-18, according to district statistics. HISD’s special education enrollment varied by roughly 50-100 students each year, with the overall student enrollment increasing at a faster pace.

However, Henry Phipps, HISD executive director of educational support services, said he believes it is normal for enrollment numbers to fluctuate from year to year, and the 8.5 percent indicator was not a factor in determining eligibility. Phipps said he hopes the TEA will incorporate feedback from school districts into the plan.

“[HISD] appreciates TEA reaching out to school districts for input given the far-reaching impact of the current corrective action plan and the commitment of district resources and staff that would be required by the plan,” Phipps said.

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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