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The "Mess" in Texas Special Education Part 1: How Did We Get Here?

Last week, representatives from the US DOE's Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) conducted a series of "listening sessions" in order to provide members of the public the opportunity to comment on issues relating to identification and evaluation of students with disabilities for special education services as well as the delivery of such services to eligible children in Texas. Sessions were held in Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Edinburg and Austin. I attended the one in Austin Thursday evening. It was scheduled to be 2 hours. It lasted over 5 and still not everyone got the opportunity to speak. But before I go any further, let's recap how we got to this point.

It all started with a series of articles by Brian Rosenthal and The Houston Chronicle investigating what appeared to be a pervasive and systematic failure over the past decade to provide special education and related services to thousands of disabled children across the state. This is the result of the Texas Education Agency's implementation of an 8.5% "cap" (or "target" or "indicator" or "benchmark" or whatever you choose to call it!) on the number of students receiving special education services in a school district as part of its Performance Based Monitoring and Analysis System (PBMAS) in 2004. Since then, the percentage of students receiving special education services in Texas has coincidentally dropped from 11.8% to 8.5%. The national average meanwhile is currently around 13% and has been hovering between 13% and 14% every year since 2000.

The Chronicle's investigation prompted the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) to write a stern letter asking Commissioner Mike Morath and TEA to formally respond to the allegations or face additional consequences which could include more stern letters, having to develop a corrective plan, or receiving technical assistance! The letter states, "The report raises serious concerns about the State’s compliance with a number of requirements of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)." One might wonder how a newspaper report could spark such "serious concerns" for OSERS regarding Texas compliance with the IDEA when they, themselves, have been reporting Texas's failure to comply with IDEA Part B requirements for implementation every year since 2004! But, I digress.

TEA responded defending the indicator in a seven page letter dated November 2, 2016. Essentially, it said the indictor is relative and not punitive. It includes four "ranges" of participation: 0-8.5%; 8.6%-11.0%; 11.1%-15.0%; and 15.1%-100% for reporting purposes. TEA was emphatic that the 8.5% has never been intended to be a cap or limit on the number of students receiving services. The annual PBMAS Manual even includes a reminder to districts of their obligation to identify and serve students with disabilities. To clear up this misunderstanding, TEA generously volunteered to send a letter to school districts clarifying their obligations under the IDEA. Problem solved!

But how could school districts have so unanimously and consistently "misinterpreted" the TEA's intent year after year?

Well, to begin with, the PBMAS indicators are used to evaluate school district performance and program effectiveness. In the PBMAS Manual provided to school districts, the four indicator "ranges" to which TEA refers are assigned a corresponding "PL" or Performance Level (ranging from 0-3 respectively) defined as "the result that occurs when a standard is applied to a district’s performance on an indicator...Throughout the PBMAS indicators, the higher the PL is, the lower the district’s performance is." So, a district with 9% SPED representation (PL 1) is, by definition, performing at a lower level than one with 8.5% SPED representation (PL 0).

Then there's the "Required Improvement" component. It is applicable only to "certain indicators" including SPED Representation. For those districts with SPED populations exceeding the PL 0 cut point of 8.5%, if they are able to decrease their SPED population enough to meet their Required Improvement amount, they are rewarded with a PL 0 for the indicator. The PBMAS Manual even provides an example of how the Required Improvement amount is determined using this very indicator! Call me crazy but it sure seems like a SPED population of 8.5% or less is the intended goal here. And Texas school districts clearly agree.

Currently, looking at the three largest school districts in Texas, Dallas ISD has a SPED population of 7.4%, Houston ISD has 7.4%, and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD has 7.5%. Overachievers!!

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