AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The U.S. Department of Education said Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure that students with disabilities were identified and given an appropriate education.
In findings released Thursday, the department’s Office of Special Education Program said Texas failed to ensure that a free appropriate public education was made available to all children with disabilities in the state, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.
OSEP launched an investigation and visited the Texas Education Agency and 12 independent school districts across the state last February, prompted by a series of reports in the Houston Chronicle which found that the state agency intentionally delayed or denied special education services to disabled students to stay below an 8.5 percent enrollment target.
State officials told the Department of Education that the enrollment target, implemented in 2004, was not a “cap” meant to save money or seriously punish school districts that failed to comply, but several school officials told the Chronicle that they viewed the target as a strict cap.
During its investigation, OSEP found that some school districts took actions specifically designed to decrease the percentage of students identified as children with disabilities in order to comply with the cap.
As a result, the number of students in Texas identified as children with disabilities significantly declined from 2004 to 2017 – from 509,401 to 477,281 students – despite the fact that the total enrollment of Texas schools increased by more than 1 million students during the same time period.
The state passed a law in May 2017 prohibiting the use of a special education cap.
However, in its report released Thursday, OSEP identified several other statewide practices that contributed to the decline in the number of disabled children eligible for special education services, including the use of auxiliary aids provided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The increased use of these 504 aids, according to OSEP, provided some struggling learners with additional services and supports without referring the children for an evaluation when they were suspected of needing a special education under IDEA.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement Thursday that she has been working directly with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath to resolve the issues and ensure that “all children with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated and served under IDEA.”
“Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs,” DeVos said. “While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday directed Morath to draft a “corrective action plan” within the next seven days.
“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. “TEA must take steps now to significantly increase the oversight provided to ensure our special education students are receiving the services they deserve.”
Morath, who was appointed to his post in December 2015, said in a statement that parents and special education advocacy groups will play an ongoing and integral role in helping to shape the corrective action plan.
“I share Gov. Abbott’s urgency to quickly address the issues identified in this federal monitoring report,” Morath said. “More importantly, I share the governor’s commitment to doing what’s right for special education students in our public schools.”