Lawmakers vote to ban cap on providing special ed. services

Lawmakers vote to ban cap on providing special ed. services

(Texas) The Texas Senate voted unanimously to remove a recommended cap on the percentage of students allowed to receive special education services in schools late last month in a move that is being applauded by advocates for students with disabilities.

In an effort to reverse a more than decade-old policy enacted by the Texas Education Agency without input from stakeholders, the legislation authored by Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, also bans state officials from ever again imposing such a restriction in the future.

“Senator Rodriguez’s efforts will expand access to special education today and ensure that TEA can never implement a similar policy in the future,” according to a statement in support from Disability Rights Texas. “Because of this bill, countless children with disabilities in our state will have a fairer chance at completing their education, finding gainful employment, and living independently.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that schools evaluate students suspected of needing special education services and ensure all children who are found to need support receive the appropriate services. But data from the federal Office of Civil Rights shows the department received a record number of complaints in 2015 alleging issues such as seclusion of students with disabilities, segregation of students in special education classes from their peers, and a lack of access to curriculum.

The Texas bill was drafted in response to a Houston Chronicle investigation last year which found as many as 250,000 children with disabilities had been denied services including tutoring and therapy over the past decade due to an arbitrary cap on services put in place by the TEA in 2004 following a state budget cut of $1.1 billion.

Texas is the only state in the country to set such a benchmark, the Chronicle’s original investigation found. Prior to the investigation, school districts in Houston provided special education services to about 7.5 percent of enrolled students, while Dallas-based districts served fewer than 7 percent of children. By comparison, New York City schools identify and provide special accommodations for 19 percent of enrolled students.

Under the cap policy, schools must adhere to an 8.5 percent target for children receiving special education services–although the national special education enrollment average remains at about 12 percent. The Chronicle has reported that although Rodriguez’s bill is the first to receive approval by a full chamber, 16 bills have been filed in response to the paper’s investigation this session.

Rodriguez’s bill would create a special education recovery program for the benefit of students who may have been negatively affected by the cap and denied services between the 2004-05 and 2016-17 school years. Those students would be eligible for reevaluation if they are under 21 years of age.

Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he supports the bill, and a vote on the House floor is expected to take place soon.

“Parents have a right to have their child evaluated for special education services, and to have a place at the table when schools design appropriate accommodations,” Rodriguez said in a statement following the Senate vote. “Children deserve our best efforts to provide a quality education.”

The provisions of the bill will take effect immediately if it received a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature–otherwise it will go into effect September 1, 2017 if it passes through both houses without meeting that vote threshold.