Thanks to a powerful report by the Houston Chronicle, an intense light now shines upon special education in Texas.
In Part I of this series, I shared with you parts of an October 3, 2016, letter Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education - Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, sent to Mike Morath, Texas commissioner of education. The letter centers around compelling evidence in the Chronicle’s report that the Texas Education Agency placed a cap--whether explicitly stated or implied through corrective measures against school districts--on special education services at 8.5 percent of districts' student population.
November 2, TEA sent a press release regarding the agency’s seven-page response to the USDE’s letter. This response followed a phone conversation October 20 between Penny Schwinn, deputy commissioner of academics at TEA, and several USDE officials. In the first paragraph of Schwinn’s letter, she writes, “…TEA strongly disagrees with statements in the article and with the overall premise of the article that Texas educators have been engaging in concerted, widespread efforts to deny eligible students with disabilities with needed special education services based on the special education representation indicator in the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS).” (Note: PBMAS, in part, requires districts to report the performance of special education students.)
Schwinn went on to write, “The allegation that the special education representation indicator is designed to reduce special education enrollment in order to reduce the amount of money the state has to spend on special education is clearly false. Allegations that TEA issued fines, conducted on-site monitoring visits, required the hiring of consultants, etc. when districts provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of their students are entirely false.”
Commissioner Morath referred to the report’s allegation that this cap explains the decrease in the number of Texas students now receiving special education services as “simplistic.” The TEA press release also notes that Morath said, “From my discussions with superintendents, I believe Texas school districts are well aware of their obligations, by law and agency policy, to identify and provide services to all students who require special education services.”
In the letter to the USDE, Schwinn also writes, “TEA does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities. TEA has not received any formal or informal complaints demonstrating that specific school districts have engaged in such an effort to deny eligible students with disabilities the services they need based on the special education representation indicator in PBMAS.”
Schwinn attached a document to her letter that “clarifies some of the inaccurate statements in the September 11, 2016, newspaper article and an October 23, 2016, follow-up article.”
More in Part III about Schwinn’s response to the five steps the USDE demanded TEA take and about what parts of the Chronicle report TEA claims are inaccurate.
Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma’s and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.