TCTA persuades TEA to include confidential reports of possible special education violations from teachers and parents in its proposed special education monitoring system

Included in TEA’s draft Strategic Plan for Special Education, released for public comment on March 19, are provisions recommended by TCTA to establish a mechanism (in addition to interviews), by which teachers/staff and parents can confidentially report to TEA instances in which districts are not meeting IDEA’s Child Find and FAPE requirements.    

TCTA was among a significant number of stakeholders that submitted comments on the initial draft corrective action plan posted by TEA for public comment on Jan. 18, 2018, in response to orders from USDE's Office of Special Education Programs to address various special education problems in Texas public schools.  

In releasing the draft strategic plan, which contains components of the corrective action plan, TEA noted that input gathered from stakeholders played a significant role in how the draft strategic plan was developed. The draft plan is available for review and public comment through noon on April 18. (Comments should be emailed to TexasSPED@tea.texas.gov.) TCTA submitted additional comments and encourages our members to do so as well. TEA will aggregate the feedback received before sending a final version to the Education Department by April 23.

The draft includes a suggestion that that TCTA has repeatedly advanced to ensure that in monitoring school districts, TEA would not rely solely on data provided by the school district, but would also include ways for parents and teachers to notify TEA confidentially of potential violations. TEA's draft plan included the following description of its monitoring system: “Qualitative indicators will likely include confidential survey results collected from educators and parents and confidential interview results. Surveys and interviews may likely consider both local policies and practices.” Additionally, the draft strategic plan provides that parent- and staff-generated requests for special education consideration are part of the data that may be required from school districts. Finally, the draft plan provides that part of the data that school districts may be required to provide TEA as part of its review process includes teacher interviews and optional family feedback.

TEA’s draft plan also provides that “TEA will ensure that the special education complaints process is expanded to adequately facilitate a potential increase in cases. TEA will work to expedite review of complaints to ensure prompt attention to students.” TCTA will submit comments on the draft recommending that TEA clarify that, in addition to parents, teachers and school staff can also use the complaint process.

Another TCTA suggestion reflected in the draft plan is that TEA should outline, at least generally, the conditions which would trigger unannounced visits to school districts, and that those conditions include results of a risk-based analysis of data collected by TEA.

The draft plan provides that in addition to desk reviews, select school districts will also receive on-site visits and that TEA’s proposed Review and Support Teams will be structured such that up to 20 percent of the school districts in Texas could receive an on-site visit in any given year. Additionally, the draft provides that a primary responsibility of the Review and Support teams is to monitor school districts using a risk assessment index, and clarifying that on-site visits could be a result of random selection, a result of the desk review, ongoing or frequent complaints to TEA, or in partnership with other state agency monitoring.

Finally, TCTA recommended that TEA’s proposed review/monitoring process should be used not just for purposes of past incidents of students for whom referral for special education services was denied/delayed, but also for new instances of students being denied/delayed referral for special education services, which is now reflected in the draft plan.

Although TCTA applauds TEA for including these provisions in the draft, there are still a number of other suggestions made by TCTA that are not reflected in the plan, including:

  • TCTA asked that the plan specify that the stakeholders with whom TEA will consult in developing TEA’s special education review process will include classroom teachers and instructional personnel; TCTA will again make this recommendation in our comments on the draft.
  • TCTA asked that in developing a suite of resources that will describe the differences between Response to Intervention, the state Dyslexia Program, Section 504 and IDEA, TEA specifically identify teachers and school staff as among the stakeholders with whom TEA will consult. TCTA will again make this recommendation in our comments on the draft.
  • In perhaps one of the biggest disappointments, related to TEA’s proposal regarding statewide professional development for all educators, structured initially as a training institute for teachers around the state, the draft plan does not include TCTA’s recommendation that TEA should not just consult teachers/instructional staff about the content of the professional development, but also about the best delivery mechanism. TCTA commented that although the proposal  is for the professional development to be structured initially as a training institute for teachers around the state, this may or may not be the most effective/useful delivery mechanism to use, and consideration should also be given to other delivery mechanisms identified by teachers. Instead the draft plan provides that “This training would launch in Summer 2019, be conducted through third parties, and require significant stakeholder feedback, including students, educators, parents, and administrators.” In submitting comments on the draft, TCTA will ask that the plan be more specific about soliciting significant feedback from teachers and instructional staff regarding both content and delivery mechanisms for the professional development.
  • TCTA noted that TEA’s professional development proposal did not indicate what the conditions are for teacher/instructional staff participation in the statewide professional development. TCTA pointed out that past experience with reading institutes in Texas has shown that incentivizing, rather than mandating, participation has been quite effective and we would encourage this approach. TCTA will again make this recommendation in our comments.
  • TCTA asked that TEA’s proposal that “All participants will be required to demonstrate content proficiency and implementation before being noted as having participated in the full program” be clarified and more information be provided about how it would be accomplished. Accordingly, TCTA will again make this recommendation in our comments on the draft plan.

Other noteworthy aspects of the draft plan

TEA will redesign the statewide networks. As part of the state discretionary funds that TEA receives under IDEA for state-level activities, TEA grants or contracts out services, supports, and networks. Networks are major, thematic topics that are identified as critical for the state. These networks are available to any school district in the state and are intended to leverage best practices.

The redesigned statewide networks are as follows:

  • Network One: Child Find, Evaluation, and ARD Supports
  • Network Two: School, Family, and Community Engagement
  • Network Three: Inclusive Services and Practices for Improved Student Outcomes
  • Network Four: Autism, which includes professional training opportunities for educators and administrators; differentiated guidance, support, and professional development on supporting students with high-functioning autism (HFA); and expanded guidance and support for general education teachers
  • Network Five: Intervention Best Practices, which provides that activities that may support learning opportunities and improvements across the state may include projects such as the following: Multi-tiered systems of support to include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Restorative Discipline; culturally responsive pedagogical practices; and Response to Intervention
  • Network Six: Students with Intensive Needs (for students who may have additional needs based on the nature and severity of their disability or other factors that require more intensive academic, behavioral, social, and/or emotional intensive support)
  • Network Seven: Students with Sensory Impairment
  • Network Eight: Students in Small and Rural school districts, which provides that activities that may support learning opportunities and improvements across the state may include projects such as professional community to mentor and support teachers and mitigate professional isolation
  • Network Nine: Child-centered Transitions
  • Network Ten: Multiple Exceptionalities and Multiple Needs

Funding a big concern

Finally, an issue of much concern to school districts and stakeholders is the availability of sufficient funding to support the strategic plan. In its draft, TEA states that the plan is largely funded out of IDEA Administrative and State Discretionary funds, which are explicitly provided for state-level activities. It also states that the funds required for this strategic plan may be paid in part through available discretionary funds of $45,000,000 and that the remaining activities may be pulled from annual state discretionary federal funds, at an approximate allocation of approximately $15,000,000 per year. TEA stressed that it does not have authority to appropriate more funds, but that it is important to acknowledge the cost of testing more students, the cost of compensatory services as applicable (may vary based on individual need), the cost of providing services, and the increase in the state expenditures for the weighted formula as more students are identified.

During a recent Senate Education Committee hearing in which special education matters were considered, numerous witnesses testified about the need for the Texas Legislature to commit a significant amount of state funds to support implementation of the plan.