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Federal officials plan second round of investigation on Texas special ed

Continuing its investigation into whether Texas capped special education services, federal officials will visit Texas districts and schools the week of Feb. 27.

Vanessa Tijerina addresses a U.S. Department of Education panel about her 13-year-old special needs child on Dec. 13, 2016, in Edinburg, Texas. Federal education officials toured Texas to hear community members' experiences with special education, as part of an investigation into whether Texas is capping services for students with disabilities.

Federal officials are returning to Texas in late February to continue their investigation into whether the state purposely excluded students from receiving special education services, they wrote in a letter Thursday to the Texas Education Agency.

Several weeks after visiting five Texas cities to hear from the public about their experiences with special education, U.S. Department of Education officials are coming back the week of Feb. 27 to visit specific districts and schools. The visits will allow them to collect information on whether the TEA violated federal law in the way it evaluated students for special education, according to the letter.

The investigation will determine whether TEA capped special education services at a low rate of 8.5 percent, after an article in the Houston Chronicle asserted the agency was purposely excluding eligible students. In addition to conducting a "listening tour" of the state, federal officials also set up a blog for Texas families and educators to list their thoughts and concerns. That blog received 421 comments in one month.

TEA officials have repeatedly denied capping special education services, and they wrote a letter to the federal government in November saying school districts may have misunderstood the 8.5 percent rate as an absolute maximum for the rate of students served.

Federal officials said they need more information to come to a decision, which will require site visits, documents and interviews with TEA staff.

“We have determined that the most efficient way to make our document request is to first examine documents for a sample district to familiarize ourselves with specific state, district and school procedures and practices,” wrote Ruth Ryder, action director of federal special education programs, in the letter.

When federal education officials visited the Rio Grande Valley on the listening tour in December, parents told story after story of educators who had not been properly trained on what services they are legally required to provide students with disabilities. Spanish-speaking parents and guardians said they were not provided with resources to actually advocate for special education services for their children.

Parent activists are pushing for legislators to improve the quality of special education services, as well as ensure all students in need are receiving them. Senate Bill 529 would require educators to be certified in special education techniques, including basic knowledge of federal law on how to serve students with disabilities, and practices to properly evaluate which students need more support.

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