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TEA denies allegations of cap on special education

The Texas Education Agency denied allegations that it capped special education services for public school students at 8.5 percent in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath testifies on school board issues before the Senate Committee on Education August 16, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.

The Texas Education Agency told the U.S. Department of Education Wednesday that it has never set a cap or limit on the number or percent of Texas public school students receiving special education support — but added that upcoming changes to the system should help district staff who may have been confused.

TEA Deputy Commissioner of Academics Penny Schwinn penned the letter responding to federal inquiries about its special education monitoring system, according to a TEA release. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation reported that Texas districts had denied students special education services under an arbitrary TEA benchmark allowing just 8.5 percent of students get those services.

The U.S. Department of Education released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it would review TEA's letter.

"The Education Department will carefully review the state’s response and, after the review is concluded, determine appropriate next steps," said Jessica Allen, assistant press secretary.

Some districts may have been confused about how to use the indicator in the system, and may have felt discouraged to refer students to needed services, Schwinn wrote to officials. "If some district staff erroneously viewed the indicator's lowest performance range as a target rather than a data point and felt discouraged to initiate special education referrals, we believe the actions that we outline in this letter will address that. As noted above, TEA has been engaged in consistent conversations over the last four years to adjust and eventually eliminate this indicator," the letter reads.

A cap does not exist, Schwinn stressed in the letter. “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,” she wrote. “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 Department of Education contacted TEA Oct. 3 with questions about special education. In Wednesday's letter, Schwinn explained the system used to monitor special education representation, saying it is reviewed yearly with input from many groups.

TEA's response comes a week after House Speaker Joe Straus urged Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to overhaul its system for identifying students in need of special education services.

Wednesday, Straus applauded the TEA for deciding to get rid of the indicator in question. "TEA's decision will give the agency time to work with legislators and others to make sure students get the services they need," he wrote in a release.

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