Education officials expect increases in special education enrollment, spending

Texas education officials say they are anticipating increased costs for special education as the state implements a federally mandated plan to improve services for children with disabilities. The plan is expected to increase the number of students served by school district special education programs through certain initiatives, including outreach to families of students who may qualify for services.

The House Appropriations Committee in October heard testimony from Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials about costs for the plan, which was developed in response to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Officials with the department’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) conducted monitoring visits in Texas last year to review the state’s compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In January, OSEP issued findings that TEA had failed to ensure that all children with disabilities in need of special education and related services were identified, evaluated, and served as required by federal law.

Visits by federal officials followed newspaper reports in 2016 that Texas was serving a lower percentage of students under IDEA than other states. The federal investigation found that an indicator adopted by TEA in 2004 that measured the percentage of students enrolled in a district’s special education services against a standard of 8.5 percent had resulted in a decline in the identification rate from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. In 2017, the Texas Legislature enacted SB 160 by Rodríguez, which prohibits the use of an indicator that measures the performance of a district based solely on a percentage of enrolled children receiving special education and related services. The federal report said other evidence collected during monitoring interviews identified situations in which districts violated IDEA requirements by delaying or not conducting evaluations for children suspected of having a disability because the children were receiving supports for struggling learners in the general education environment.

TEA’s Special Education Strategic Plan, posted on the agency’s website in April, is a five-year plan to correct deficiencies identified by federal officials and address feedback TEA received from parents, educators, and advocates. TEA told House budget writers that because it cannot legally commit funds outside of those appropriated by the Legislature, the plan was designed to be sustained by existing resources. TEA plans to use $211.3 million in federal IDEA funds to identify, evaluate, and place students in special education programs; train and support educators; increase student, family, and community engagement; and monitor districts and charter schools to ensure compliance with federal laws.

In response to the corrective action plan, OSEP outlined areas for continued monitoring. OSEP also said it will schedule another visit to Texas in early 2019 to review the state’s progress in implementing improvements.

The Texas efforts are expected to increase the number of students served in special education programs. A TEA deputy commissioner told House budget writers that if Texas was serving special education students at the national average, as it was before the 2004 performance indicator was adopted, expected enrollment would be at least 600,000 students, up from the current level of about 500,000.

Special education in Texas is funded by both federal and state funds. Federal funding for IDEA during the 2018-19 biennium is projected to be about $2.1 billion, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Most of that federal funding is passed on to local schools for student services, but some is used for state-level activities. State funding through the school finance formulas for students in special education was $3.1 billion for the 2017-18 school year. Each 1 percent increase in the number of students eligible for special education services would cost the state about $342 million per school year, according to TEA.

In its Legislative Appropriations Request for the 2020-21 biennium, TEA is seeking funding of $50.5 million for a new special education services grant program. The grants are designed to help districts evaluate and serve students who have not been properly identified as needing special education services. TEA said the grant program would cover one year of services for 10,000 students at an average cost of $5,000 per student but noted that more than 10,000 students could require compensatory services.

TEA said it will request an increase in its employee cap and use federal funds to hire 54 new special education-focused employees in fiscal 2019.

By Janet Elliott 

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