Major state funding needed to correct wrongful denial of special-education services

The March 26 hearing of the Texas Senate Education Committee led off with an update from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath on the state’s plan for corrective action to ensure that all eligible students receive special-education services. The plan is a response to findings by the U.S. Department of Education that a significant percentage of eligible students with disabilities in Texas have been denied services. The wrongful denial of services occurred as school districts responded to state policy guidance, in the form of a performance indicator that implied no more than 8.5 percent of students should be eligible for special-education services. By no coincidence, the Texas average percentage across districts was 8.6 percent, at a time when the national average was more than 13 percent. At Monday’s hearing Commissioner Morath said the Texas average now has ticked up to 8.9 percent. Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and others pressed for an estimate of what it will likely cost to bring Texas closer to the national norm. A definite answer was not forthcoming, but Morath did hazard a guesstimate of what it could take in additional state funds to bring the state average up to around 12 percent. The amount: a billion dollars a year.

Texas AFT joined with many others at the hearing in calling for the state to do right by these special-needs students and to acknowledge that Morath’s action plan, which would rely solely on reshuffling existing appropriations, is just the beginning of the corrective response these students deserve. Our position is laid out in this excerpt from written testimony we submitted Monday:

A significant number of students with disabilities in our public schools in recent years were deprived of the special-education services to which they are entitled by law because of a policy and practice, promoted by the Texas Education Agency, of capping the percentage of special-education students at 8.5 percent—far below the national average of more than 13 percent. The Legislature in 2017 prohibited the use of any such state cap on the percentage of students receiving special-education services. We strongly supported this action and urge you to defend the ban on any arbitrary cap on the number of students receiving special-education services in Texas public schools.

The Texas Education Agency, in its draft strategy and plan for corrective action on special education, says the plan will rely solely on existing appropriations, including discretionary funds within the agency’s control. But the reality is that identifying, evaluating, and serving an influx of a large number of eligible students will require significant additional funding from the Legislature. Special-education teachers already have unmanageable caseloads. Implementation of the corrective plan will require recruitment of many additional teachers and paraprofessionals to meet the demand. We urge you to champion the full funding of the special-education services to which these students are entitled in our public schools.