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Texas School Alliance

Who’s to blame for the special education limits

The Lege gets a finger pointed at it.

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

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The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

See here for past blogging on the topic, and here for the Trib story on the federal report. I will note that the Chair of the House Public Education Committee at the time of the 2004 interim report was none other then Kent Grusendorf, a man who was so anti-public education that he was basically the inspiration for (and first real victory won by) the Texas Parent PAC. So yeah, I have no trouble believing this. As to when it might get fixed, that’s a topic for November.

A little budgeters remorse?

Just a little. Not much.

As a vote looms on a bare-bones budget that would slash education and threaten nursing homes with closure, House GOP leaders softened their rhetoric on Tuesday to emphasize that it is a starting point and that cuts could be eased later without raising taxes.

“I think there’s people out there that want to keep it right the way it is right now. But I think we’re going to be able to do things that are better,” said Jim Pitts, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Pitts – who last week said the budget proposal approved by his committee might be as far as many House Republicans were willing to go – said after a closed-door House Republican Caucus meeting that GOP members raised many of the same concerns that have been aired by Democrats.

“There’s a huge concern about what’s going to happen in nursing homes,” said Pitts, R-Waxahachie. “And what’s close to all of us – we all have a public school in our district – is what’s going to happen to our schools?”

I guess I’m glad to hear someone on the Republican side of the House express those concerns, though Pitts has been pretty realistic about this from the beginning. There’s not much in the story beyond hope for good news from Comptroller Susan Combs and a few accounting tricks to make you think there’s any action to back it up, however. Maybe they’re waiting to see what the Senate finds in the couch cushions.

“It is the beginning of the process,” Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Tuesday. “I would say judge us by the budget we pass as a Legislature, not as a first, early-in-the-process budget proposal.”

Where you end up is certainly what ultimately matters, but where you start out says something about you, too. I think we’ve learned a lot already.

Whatever the case, the budget debate begins today. There are a lot of voices urging a No vote on HB1.

School districts across the state are urging their House members to vote no on the proposed budget that will be taken up on the House floor Friday. A letter sent to House members by the Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas Association of School Boards and Texas School Alliance said the bill “proposes unsustainable cuts to your public schools” and should be rejected. “The significant reduction in state funding for school districts proposed in House Bill 1 inevitably will force districts to lay off employees, reduce salaries, or both,” the groups said.

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“Before you vote on House Bill 1, we encourage you to consult with the superintendents and school board members of your school districts to understand the impact the proposed state funding cuts will have on your schools and students,” the letter concluded. “On behalf of the students of Texas, we urge you to vote against House Bill 1 until all budget balancing options are utilized to mitigate the proposed funding cuts for public education.”

You can view a copy of the letter here (PDF). I doubt it will have much effect, but I sure hope it serves to remind everyone associated with those organizations who to vote for and vote against next year. Remember that while the Senate version of the budget so far would cut funding less than what HISD is currently planning for, the House version cuts funding quite a bit more than that.

Also worth watching will be the hundreds of budget amendments, many of which would be as damaging as the budget itself.

At least three proposed amendments would prohibit funding of any organization that provides abortion services or refers pregnant women to facilities that provide abortion services. This is clearly aimed at Planned Parenthood.

Texas Conservative Coalition Chairman Wayne Christian has one to require universities to provide traditional family values centers if they support “a gender and sexuality center” for gay and lesbian students. Another of his would require universities to dedicate at least 10 percent of their courses for undergraduates to the study of Western Civilization.

Because there’s never a bad time to stick it to the gays, as it were. The only thing that could be better is denying health care to women who need it. Do yourself a favor and find a nice, solid wall on which to bang your head now. You’ll need it for later. The Trib has a list of all the budget amendments that will be debated, plus information about who proposed them.