For years, Texas education officials illegally led schools across the state to deny therapy, tutoring and counseling to tens of thousands of children with disabilities, the federal government said Thursday.
In a letter to the Texas Education Agency, which oversees education in the state, regulators from the federal Department of Education said the state agency’s decision to set a “target” for the maximum percentage of students who should receive special education services had violated federal laws requiring schools to serve all students with disabilities.
The target, enacted in 2004 and eliminated last year, was set at 8.5 percent of enrollment, and school districts were penalized for exceeding that benchmark, even though the state and national averages had both long been about 12 percent. As a direct result of the policy, regulators determined, the share of students receiving special education services in Texas dropped from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016 — a difference of about 150,000 children.
In the letter, federal regulators ordered the state to design a plan to identify students who were inappropriately kept out of special education and to figure out how to help them, among other corrective actions.
The order brought to an end one of the Department of Education’s most extensive reviews in recent history. Investigators spent 15 months holding public forums, interviewing teachers and visiting school districts. The letter represented the first major state monitoring decision approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who at times has been criticized for relaxing some special educations regulations.
“Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs,” Ms. DeVos said in a statement announcing the regulatory action. “Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services.”
Texas state officials had denied for months that any child had been inappropriately kept out of special education. But the state’s governor and education commissioner responded to the federal review on Thursday by pledging corrective action.
“The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students and the failure of T.E.A. to hold districts accountable are worthy of criticism,” Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency, referring to the agency by its initials. “Such failures are not acceptable, and T.E.A. must take steps now to significantly increase the oversight provided to ensure our special education students are receiving the services they deserve.”
Mr. Abbott, a Republican who took office in 2015, ordered education officials to draft a corrective action plan within seven days.
Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued his own statement, noting that the state already had increased resources for parents and hired 39 additional special education workers across the state.
“I am committing today that there will be more,” he said in the statement.
The federal review was prompted by a 2016 investigation by The Houston Chronicle, which revealed the enrollment target. The newspaper quoted dozens of teachers saying that the target had forced them to withhold services from students with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, mental illnesses, speech impairments or even blindness and deafness.
In the resulting outcry, Texas lawmakers ended the policy and passed several bills overhauling special education. Still, the federal review found that years of pressure from state officials to enroll fewer students in special education had created a culture of noncompliance with federal law that had outlasted the policy.
Among other issues, the federal regulators found that many Texas schools have trained teachers not to try to find out whether struggling students qualify for special education until regular classroom teaching techniques like Response to Intervention have been tried for years without success. That approach runs counter to federal law, which requires schools to evaluate students as soon as a disability is suspected.
The letter said regulators identified a statewide pattern of evaluations being “delayed or not conducted for children who were suspected of having a disability because these children were receiving supports for struggling learners in the general education environment.”
Advocates for children with disabilities praised the federal government’s action on Thursday, while cautioning that there was more work to do.
“The Commissioner of Education must immediately embrace the corrective actions required by the U.S. Department of Education and take additional steps, in collaboration with stakeholders, to ensure that all students who were previously denied special education services now rightfully receive compensatory services,” said Dustin Rynders, the education director at Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group based in Houston that receives federal funds.
Mr. Rynders was the first advocate to discover the state’s enrollment target. He filed complaints about it with state and federal officials in 2015, but he was ignored.
“Texas students with disabilities who have been ignored and shunned by the special education system have some measure of validation today,” he said.
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