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Texas Special Education Caps Violated Federal Law

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
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From Texas Standard.

Based on a Houston Chronicle investigation that found the Texas Education Agency had capped access to special education services, the U.S. Department of Education has concluded that Texas violated federal law in a deliberate effort to lower the number of students receiving aid.

The investigation began in 2016, when Brian Rosenthal, then a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, noticed something odd. Compared to the rest of the country, Texas had the lowest percentage of students receiving special education services – around 8.5 percent.  What he discovered was a so-called accountability system instituted by the TEA that appeared to arbitrarily cap how many kids were receiving special education services, by putting the squeeze on local schools. The TEA has always insisted it didn’t cap special ed services, but Rosenthal’s reporting, which he detailed in a Texas Standard interview, triggered the federal investigation.

Steve Aleman, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, says his organization asked TEA about the 8.5 percent cap, and received no explanation or confirmation that the cap existed.

“It’s clear that there was a state policy that administrators of the top level of our state adopted without any consultation with stakeholders – even members of the legislature for that matter,” Aleman says.

Lawmakers have eliminated the special education caps. Aleman says it’s unusual for the federal Department of Education to take action in a case like this.

“This is a big deal,” Aleman says. “Certainly it is validation for students and those families that always felt shunned by the system.”

Aleman says now the state has to create a corrective action plan to remedy harm done by the special ed caps. Additionally, Aleman says, the federal action should provide momentum to those who want to fix the system.

Gov. Greg Abbott gave TEA Commissioner Mike Morath seven days to produce the corrective action plan. Aleman says future steps include involving stakeholders in crafting solutions that restore educational opportunities to children with disabilities.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Alain Stephens heads up investigative reports for Texas Standard. A graduate of the University of North Texas and a veteran of two of the U.S. armed forces, Alain served both in the Coast Guard and the Air Force. His work has won accolades for exposing how the state pays those with disabilities below minimum wage, as well as the fast-tracking of juveniles to adult prisons. Contact Alain at astephens@kut.org, or (512) 232-6173.