Texas in Trouble for Capping Special-Education Services

The state of Texas is in trouble with the law over a policy pressuring school districts to minimize the percentage of students enrolled in special-education programs for students with disabilities. Federal law requires states to provide such services to all eligible students, but a policy guideline imposed on districts by the Texas Education Agency for years has set a special-ed enrollment target of no more than 8.5 percent of all students. A district exceeding that percentage could face a TEA demand for “corrective action” to reduce special-ed enrollment. Partly as a result of the TEA policy, special-ed enrollment statewide has fallen from roughly 12 percent in 2004 to exactly 8.5 percent in 2015—the lowest rate of any state.

Now, after a recent Houston Chronicle article put a spotlight on the issue, the U.S. Department of Education has told TEA that it must eliminate the policy unless it can demonstrate there’s been no adverse effect on services to students with disabilities.

TEA officials say the policy was intended to prevent districts from “overidentifying” students as being in need of special education. They also contend that the declining special-ed enrollment percentage reflects improved teaching that has helped students overcome learning disabilities. But some parents and advocates for students with special needs say the TEA policy puts improper pressure on school districts to keep special-education services out of reach for students in need.

Federal education authorities, according to the Chronicle and other media, on October 3 ordered TEA to report on the impact of the state enrollment cap, to identify districts that have deprived students of merited services, and to specify how the state will “remedy the effect of such past practices.”

The issue also has caught the attention of state legislators. Some have vowed to take legislative action if the state policy is found to have reduced access to special-ed services arbitrarily. The issue already has been discussed in an August interim hearing of the Senate Education Committee where the state’s policy was brought to light and challenged by disability-rights advocates.