Five-and-a-half pages of the seven-page letter Penny Schwinn, Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner of academics, sent to Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, November 2 (2016) consisted of responses to questions the USDOE demanded TEA answer regarding allegations of a cap on the number of Texas students receiving special education services. These allegations were made in a Houston Chronicle report September 11 and in a follow-up article October 23. In part III, I will attempt to condense the responses while faithfully rendering the message.

 

1. Has there been a systematic denial of special education services to children with disabilities?

Schwinn responded that TEA has no “specific evidence,” nor any “formal or informal complaints” against any district, to indicate such a denial. She called the allegation that the purpose of the special education representation indicator was to lower the state’s spending on special education “clearly false.” Rather, she wrote, in keeping with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (known in education circles as IDEA), the indicator was designed to ensure that “only children with disabilities who require special education services are placed in special education programs.” Schwinn went on to inform Swenson that a number of individuals who contradicted allegations made in the Chronicle report have contacted TEA to inform them that their interviews were left out. She also wrote, “…TEA stands ready to investigate any complaint submitted by anyone who has evidence that a district has not initiated referrals because of a concern about any PBMAS indicator.” (PBMAS refers to the state’s Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System.) There is much more in the letter about PBMAS, how it was developed, and how PBMAS reports are shared with various entities.

2. Does TEA have a cap on the identification of students with disabilities?

In response to this question, Schwinn wrote, “TEA has never set a cap, limit, or policy on the number or percent of students that districts can, or should, serve in special education…It should be noted that the PBMAS Manual includes a statement reminding districts of their obligation to identify and provide a free appropriate public education to all students with disabilities who require special education services. As a condition of funding, each district’s superintendent assures that his or her district will comply with this requirement.”

3. Is the PBMAS special education representation indicator used to determine whether school districts identify more than 8.5percent of their student body population as students with disabilities? To answer this question, Schwinn goes into a relatively lengthy explanation of the purpose of the PBMAS special education representation indicator, never coming right out with a “yes” or “no” response but otherwise indicating that it is not used for this reason.

4. If a district exceeds 8.5percent, is it required to take steps to reduce its students with disabilities rate in order to meet an 8.5percent expectation? Schwinn explains that TEA only uses one of the four PBMAS special education representation rate indicator ranges for school district interventions, immediately adding, “Interventions staging is not a TEA sanction” but rather “a continuous improvement model.” (The current model is the Texas Accountability Interventions System.) She then explains, in detail, how this process works, including, “As part of TAIS, districts conduct a data analysis to determine what, if any, problems exist that may be contributing to an ineffective program. Districts identify root causes for the problem statements they identified through data analysis and develop a targeted improvement plan to address any areas of low performance and program ineffectiveness…” She also wrote, “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 8.5percent of their students are entirely false.” (My note: I found the answer to this question troubling because, like in the response to question number three, Schwinn never provided a direct “yes” or “no” to the question. If districts are required to take part in “interventions staging” (aka continuous improvement model), the answer to the question is YES. The way I read this is that if a district exceeds 8.5 percent, warning signals go off at TEA regarding potential “problems” and an “ineffective program.” I did not read a clear explanation about how a percentage greater than 8.5 would automatically lead to this concern.)

As hard as I tried, I only made it halfway through number four in this week’s column due to limited space. Next week, I will summarize a case Schwinn refers to in response to question number four that involves Laredo ISD, as well as her response to question number five. Hopefully, I will also have space to address TEA’s responses to what they refer to as the Chronicle’s inaccuracies.

(NOTE: You can read the entire letter, along with other related documents, at http://tea.texas.gov/About_TEA/News_and_Multimedia/Press_Releases/2016/TEA_responds_to_USDE_special_education_concerns)

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 cardis1022@aol.com.