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TEA News Releases Online Nov. 2, 2016
TEA responds to USDE special education concerns

AUSTIN – The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today submitted its response to concerns recently expressed by the U.S. Department of Education regarding special education in the state. In a letter sent to Acting Assistant Secretary Sue Swenson, the agency made it clear that TEA has never set a cap, limit or policy on the number or percent of students that school districts can, or should, serve in special education. 

In its letter to federal officials, the agency provided an explanation of the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) – specifically the indicator for special education representation. PBMAS is a data system that reports annually on the performance of school districts and charter schools in selected program areas, such as bilingual education/English as a second language, career and technical education and special education.

TEA Deputy Commissioner of Academics Penny Schwinn advised Secretary Swenson that claims the special education indicator in the system somehow lead to financial savings for TEA are not accurate.

“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,” wrote Schwinn in the letter to federal officials. “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.”

The agency also countered allegations that TEA “quietly devised” PBMAS, noting that the agency has provided federal officials with information about the system and its indicators during various reviews. In addition, information about the system has been shared with legislators on the state level. The system is also reviewed annually with the input of various stakeholder groups, including those representing special education. 

“Policy related to special education is extremely complex, so attempting to pinpoint one factor as the sole reason from an increase or decrease in the representation rate is simplistic,” said Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. “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.”

The U.S. Department of Education contacted TEA in an Oct. 3rd letter with a series of questions related to special education. Regarding the decline of special education representation since the state began using PBMAS, TEA noted that such declines pre-date the use of PBMAS, with special education representation in Texas increasing in 2016. 

Additionally, the agency pointed to various factors on both the state and federal level occurring through the years, including major state initiatives specifically designed to help struggling students (such as the Texas Reading Initiative) and the provision in the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that was added to ensure that a lack of instruction in reading or math or limited English proficiency were not determinant factors for eligibility determinations. 

Over the years, changes to state and federal accountability systems related to inclusion of students with disabilities have been contributing factors. Improved policy and practice at the district-level with regard to understanding the basis for special education eligibility have also contributed.

“TEA does not have any specific evidence indicating there has been a systematic denial of special education services to eligible students with disabilities,” wrote Schwinn. “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.”

TEA continues working with special education advisory groups for feedback and guidance on all aspects of special education policy. Because of recent confusion regarding the PBMAS special education indicator, school districts and charters will be advised that it will not be used for current PBMAS staging purposes.  

Commissioner Morath remains committed to utilizing input from parents and educators to make any revisions to the monitoring system that are necessary for Texas students. State leadership – including members of the Texas Legislature – will be kept updated on actions regarding special education made by TEA.

TEA formally submitted its letter to the U.S. Department of Education today. There is no timeline regarding any response from federal officials.

The TEA response to the U.S. Department of Education (including all supporting materials and attachments) is listed below.