TEA issued the final version of its strategic plan for special education in response to a federal monitoring report that required TEA to correct areas of deficiency, including the proper identification of special education students and assuring access to appropriate services at the local level.

A key focus is rectifying a situation identified by the federal Office of Special Education Programs in which some school districts delayed or denied potentially eligible students the right to an initial evaluation for special education in order to avoid exceeding TEA’s former 8.5 percent monitoring target for referral of students for special education services. TEA discontinued use of the monitoring target after a special report by the Houston Chronicle, and legislation was subsequently passed in 2017 prohibiting the use of such a target.  

OSEP found that some of the practices used by school districts to delay or deny initial special education evaluations for students included serving such students via a Section 504 plan or a dyslexia program, or requiring that a student first be provided Response to Intervention for a significant period of time. Accordingly, in earlier versions of the strategic plan, TEA proposed requiring every school district/charter school to identify all students who were in these categories. It then required schools to notify the parents of these identified students of their opportunity for a special education evaluation.

In response to stakeholder input, TEA’s final plan narrows the scope of school districts’ required outreach to parents. TEA will propose rulemaking to require all school districts to distribute information to every enrolled student’s family about:

  • school districts’ obligations under federal law to identify students possibly eligible for special education evaluation;
  • parental rights under federal law and contact information to request an initial evaluation; and
  • school districts’ obligation to provide a free and appropriate education to students who meet eligibility requirements for special education under federal law.

By doing so, TEA significantly reduced the amount of funding and personnel that would have been needed to meet the plan’s requirements.

The final plan also includes a number of recommendations made by TCTA in public comment

First, it includes TCTA’s recommendation that in monitoring school districts, TEA should not rely solely on data provided by the school district, but should also include ways for parents and teachers to notify TEA confidentially of potential violations. TEA's final plan states: “Qualitative indicators will likely include, to the extent permitted by law, anonymous survey and interview results collected from educators and parents. Surveys and interviews will likely consider local policies as well as local practices.” Additionally, the final plan provides that parent- and staff-generated requests for special education evaluation are part of the data that may be required from school districts. Finally, the 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 the opportunity for families to provide feedback.

TEA’s final plan also provides that “TEA will ensure that the special education state complaints team is sufficiently staffed to resolve in a timely manner all special education complaints that the agency receives.” (TCTA submitted comments on the draft plan recommending that TEA clarify that, in addition to parents, teachers and school staff can also use the complaint process; however, TEA declined to do so in the final plan).

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

In addition to desk reviews, select school districts will receive on-site visits, and 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 plan provides that a primary responsibility of the review and support teams is to monitor school districts using a risk assessment index. It clarifies that on-site visits could be a result of the desk review, random selection, 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. This is now reflected in the final plan.

Although TCTA appreciates the inclusion of these provisions in the final plan, there are a number of other TCTA suggestions that are not reflected, including:

  • TCTA asked for clarification that the stakeholders with whom TEA will consult in developing its special education review process will include classroom teachers and instructional personnel;
  • TCTA asked that TEA specifically identify teachers and school staff as among the stakeholders with whom TEA will consult in developing a suite of resources that will describe the differences between Response to Intervention, the state dyslexia program, Section 504 and IDEA;
  • In perhaps one of the biggest disappointments, related to TEA’s proposal regarding statewide professional development for all educators, 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 was 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 final plan provides that “TEA will create and execute statewide professional development for all educators (all education, special education, and others), structured initially as a training institute for teachers around the state, and which will include ongoing follow up through year-round support and modules.”
  • 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. The final plan does not address these issues.
  • 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. TEA’s final plan states “In order to focus on impact, participants would likely be required to demonstrate content proficiency and implementation before being noted as having participated in the full program.”

Other noteworthy aspects of the final plan

In addressing concerns about the need for additional staff to meet the requirements of the plan, TEA committed to providing short-term relief by contracting with external diagnosticians and expert personnel, upon request, at no cost to school districts. TEA also committed to providing a state-approved vendor list with negotiated pricing for those districts wanting to independently contract with these external providers.

For the longer term, the final plan provides that “TEA will convene a special education personnel forum and will invite the State Board for Educator Certification, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Colleges of Education from across the state, and professional organizations. This policy forum may discuss and develop a report with recommendations about how Texas will meet the staffing needs in special education.”

As for the expected increase in state and local district funding needed to implement the plan’s requirements, the final plan provides that it will largely be funded by IDEA Administrative and State Discretionary funds, which are 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 milion and that the remainder may come from annual state discretionary federal funds, at an allocation of approximately $15 million per year. TEA stressed that it does not have authority to appropriate more funds, but that it is important to acknowledge that school districts will incur greater costs associated with testing more students, the compensatory services as applicable (may vary based on individual need), and the cost of providing services. 

TEA also committed to spending any additional appropriated funds on plan execution and on additional support for school districts, as well as including funding for local special education needs in its legislative appropriations request for 2019.

Finally, the plan provides that TEA will redesign the statewide networks, which 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; state level professional development for school personnel and parents of students with autism 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

Continuing coverage: TEA tells districts to collect and retain special education evaluation referral data