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Texas Schools Still Failing Special Education Students, Federal Review Finds

Special education students walk down a school hallway.
Eddie Gaspar
The Texas Tribune
Special education students walked to class in Texas in 2019.

Texas has failed to prove it did enough to overhaul a system that illegally left thousands of public school students with disabilities without needed special education services, according to a letter federal officials sent the state last month.

A 2018 federal investigation found the state had been effectively denying students with disabilities the tools and services they need in order to learn, in violation of federal law.

After visiting 12 Texas public schools in May 2019, the U.S. Department of Education did not find sufficient evidence Texas had done what was necessary to reach all the students who had been previously denied special education services. Texas also didn't show proof it had provided school districts with clear guidance on their responsibilities under federal law, leaving school officials with "continued confusion" about how to interpret it.

Federal officials "cannot determine, in the absence of additional and up-to-date information, whether these actions have been sufficient to fully address the noncompliance identified" in the initial federal investigation, the letter reads. The Texas Education Agency has 90 days to respond from the date of the letter, Oct. 19.

The TEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The state's actions over the next month hold high importance for the more than half-a-million Texas students who receive special education services through public schools — and those who have been left out.

Under federal law, school districts are required to evaluate students thought to need extra help, and work with parents or guardians to draw up annual plans to address those needs. For some students, that may be extra time to take a test, while others may need full-time aides or a team of specialists to help them speak or walk.

As early as March 2019 and up until this October, the state education agency has repeatedly said it has fully addressed problems identified in the 2018 investigation.

But the federal government found otherwise. Although the TEA funded additional staff positions, offered grants to schools and bolstered state-level specialists, educators and parents interviewed by the federal investigators still said school districts were not following the law, and wrongly denying students extra help. Some told the federal government they questioned the TEA's ability to properly enforce special education law.

Some of the changes TEA made have not done enough to improve school leaders' actions, the letter says. For example, Texas revised its handbook on how schools should serve kids with dyslexia, the most common learning disability. The previous policy on dyslexia was ambiguous and may have directed some eligible students away special education, the federal investigation found in 2018.

Despite the revision, many schools confused by the handbook are still consistently declaring students with dyslexia automatically ineligible for special education. One educator wrongly told federal officials that students with dyslexia did not struggle with reading comprehension or fluency and so did not need additional services. "School staff referenced the Dyslexia Handbook as support for their current practices or, in some cases, a source of ambiguous guidance," the letter reads.

And the TEA has not done enough to explain to parents their rights under federal law. Some of the information the TEA has included in state handbooks and parental guides is inaccurate or unclear and must be revised to be consistent with federal law.

The federal visit was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person education for millions of Texas public school students, leaving students with special needs even more vulnerable.

Many parents said they already see their children, who struggle with an array of behavioral, emotional and physical challenges, falling behind and losing important skills. They have been on their own to seek out services such as speech and physical therapy, while school districts struggled to adapt individualized learning plans to virtual education.

The TEA released suggested guidelines for schools to consider students with disabilities in their virtual learning plans, including access to technology such as audiobooks and screen readers. In the meantime, some parents have already left for private options, for which the state has provided some money.

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.