Kids were denied special ed services because of state’s "dereliction of duty," not schools,’ Texas administrators say.
Texas educators are pushing back against Gov. Greg Abbott’s assertion that children were denied special education services because of schools’ "dereliction of duty."
Last week, federal authorities found that schools across the state broke the law by intentionally delaying or denying students such programs in order to stay under perceived enrollment caps and avoid state scrutiny.
Abbott then ordered the state’s education commissioner to have a draft correction plan finished by this week, adding that the "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."
But the Texas School Alliance, Texas Council of Administrators for Special Education and the Texas Association of School Administrators say they were only doing what state officials and the Texas Education Agency pressured them to do: reign in enrollment because of rising costs.
State policy continuously put educators in the precarious spot of doing what was right for kids or taking a hit on accountability measurements that can lead to strict scrutiny, said Alief Superintendent H.D. Chambers.
"Fingers keep being pointed as to who’s to blame for this, and the governor says school districts were being derelict in their duty," said Chambers, president elect of the Texas School Alliance that represents the state’s largest districts. "We were not derelict in our duties. We were doing what we were told to do. For the agency to claim that they never were trying to enforce some kind of hard cap is just not true."
Chambers said that during his time as a Houston-area school administrator, he’s been in various conversations in which districts were trying to do what was right for students, only to have state officials pressure them to keep special education enrollment down. Schools often tried to find ways to help kids even when it meant the schools were in conflict with the state, he said.
The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education issued a statement saying Abbott’s comment was "offensive and inaccurate." The group points to significant budget cuts for schools amid overall soaring student enrollment increases and stepped-up accountability standards.
"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," according to the group’s statement.
Representatives from Abbott’s office did not return messages seeking comment.
The various educator groups point to a 2004 interim House report as being the likely genesis of the special education cap.
TEA officials have long insisted that an accountability measurement that required monitoring of special education enrollment was never intended to limit the number of children who could receive services, but rather was put in place to help districts be aware of potential issues. Districts across the state had previously been in trouble for unnecessarily placing kids — particularly minority students — in special education classes.
TEA officials on Tuesday declined to comment on the Texas School Alliance’s statements saying, "The Texas Education 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."
The U.S. Department of Education began investigating the state’s special education program after the Houston Chronicle reported that thousands of students had been denied services because of a perceived 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment.
In 2004, 11.6 percent of Texas students were in special education. That dropped to 8.6 percent by 2016.
Many have speculated as to how the so-called cap began, while TEA has insisted there wasn’t one.
The alliance and others point to a 2004 interim House report that looked at various special education issues including cost containment. It noted the state was reviewing how the state’s school finance system encouraged "overidentification" of students because districts receive more state funds to educate such children.
The report pointed to other states that used caps on either the number of students who could be identified as eligible for services or on the amount of state money available. The alliance’s statement says that TEA eventually adopted its policy because of this discussion.
But Kent Grusendorf, a former Republican lawmaker from Arlington who was chairman of the House’s Public Education committee at that time, said at no point did he or other lawmakers create legislation that made TEA create any form of a quota.
"We never passed a bill that I know of that did that," he said. "The House committee couldn’t direct TEA to do anything. All we could do was pass legislation."
Grusendorf said that now, some 14 years later, the only specific discussions about special education enrollment that he remembers was when a 29-member select committee was trying to find solutions to ongoing school finance litigation.
One witness had talked in depth about students being misidentified as needing special education, he said. The 2004 interim report also noted that for decades, there had been concerns about minority students being identified for such programs in disproportionate numbers.
"It was a double-sided coin because we had to take care of kids that needed it, but if you misidentified a kid, that meant holding a kid back," he said. "And there was a financial incentive to misidentify kids because that meant more money for districts."
Chambers, however, noted that the extra funding schools get for such students doesn’t come close to covering the cost for services to help them.
Under federal law, schools must provide qualifying students with special education accommodations or services without a limit on the number of students who can receive such support.
The state has already scrapped the accountability measurement based solely on special education enrollment.
And various districts have reviewed their own programs to see what the stumbling blocks are for families to get services. In Dallas, for example, officials found language to be a key barrier and are working to help Spanish-speaking families have better access.
Disability rights advocates say that Texas’ plan moving forward must include a system for identifying kids who should have received help but were denied.