Gov. Abbott sets out to revamp special education system in Texas

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A U.S. Department of Education investigation has ruled that Texas' education agency illegally denied therapy, tutoring, counseling, and other needed aid to tens of thousands of students with disabilities. That's what the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday, after a 15-month investigation.

"It is the federal government telling families we heard you, we understand, and you are right", said Kym Rogers with Disability Rights Texas.

Here's what happened in Texas, and why it matters.

The federal education department directed Texas to take several corrective actions: produce documentation that the state is properly monitoring school districts' evaluations for special education; develop a plan and timeline to ensure that each school district will evaluate students previously denied needed services; and create a plan and timeline for the Texas Education Agency to provide guidance to educators on how to identify and educate students with disabilities. Districts could be penalized if they went over that rate.

The agency put pressure on districts, such as Austin, that placed a higher percentage of students in special education by lowering their scores in state ratings, the report indicated.

Federal education officials wrote this policy violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The target, enacted in 2004 and eliminated past year, was set at 8.5 percent of enrollment, and school districts were penalized for exceeding that benchmark, even though the state and national averages had both always been about 12 percent.

TEA has denied all allegations that it capped services for students. Since then enrollment has surged.

Gov. Abbott has given TEA seven days to draft a corrective action plan. "Since becoming Commissioner, I have worked to strengthen the supports provided to our parents and school systems", Morath said in a statement. "More importantly, I share the governor's commitment to doing what's right for special education students in our public schools".

Our reporting in Florida and in IN, for example, has shown that many parents have trouble accessing that free, appropriate public education.

Complaints from special education parents continue to be lodged against the district with the TEA, however. What he discovered was a so-called accountability system instituted by the TEA that appeared to arbitrarily cap how many kids were receiving special education services, by putting the squeeze on local schools.

All of this gets complicated by the question of school choice, a pet issue of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Aleman says future steps include involving stakeholders in crafting solutions that restore educational opportunities to children with disabilities. They did not understand that students could receive these services in both special education and general education classrooms. And DeVos has repeatedly refused to say that she would require private schools to serve everyone.

Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter Thursday to Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath, directing him to take immediate steps to reform special education in Texas.

Bill Zeeble, an education reporter at member station KERA in Dallas, assisted with reporting for this story.