After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.
The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their "dereliction of duty" in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.
"We weren't derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict," said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. "We were following what they put in place."
In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.
"Another method that states use to control special education costs is to impose caps either on the number of students who can be identified as eligible for special education services or amount of available state dollars," the legislative report said, as part of a breakdown of how Texas funds special education compared to other states.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires Texas to identify and provide services for all children with disabilities between ages 3 and 21 in the state. The federal government is currently paying about 16 percent of special education costs across the country.
The committee's report recommended the Legislature "determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services."
It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.
That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.
Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. "We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population," he said.
TEA continued Sunday to deny allegations that it told districts to cap special education services at 8.5 percent. "The Texas Education [Agency] has been consistent with its position regarding this indicator. Our agency’s focus now is meeting the Governor’s directive to draft a corrective action plan to address the issues identified in the monitoring report," said Gene Acuna, TEA spokesperson, in a statement Sunday.
Soon after the federal report came out last week, Abbott demanded Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath develop a remediation plan for special education within seven days. "The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of the TEA to hold districts accountable, are worth criticism," he said.
School groups immediately pushed back against that characterization, arguing that educators were following TEA's demands to cut back services, and had faced state cuts that limited the quality of special education.
"Special education administrators are tasked with leading their staff to provide the best possible services with limited resources, limited training, and inconsistent guidance. It is not a dereliction of duty to follow a directive from your state regulatory agency, while at the same time trying to meet the needs of all students," said Kristin McGuire, government relations director of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, in a statement last week.