- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Education Agency has told schools they must provide services to all eligible students with disabilities and won’t be penalized for serving too many children.

The TEA’s announcement came after the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state agency to end an 8.5 percent benchmark on special education enrollment, the Houston Chronicle reported (https://bit.ly/2eR1Ymz ).

The newspaper previously reported that schools began denying special education services after the state imposed the enrollment benchmark in 2004.

In a five-page letter, Penny Schwinn, the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics, told schools that the TEA eventually would end the benchmark. Schwinn also said that effective immediately, she wrote, exceeding the 8.5 percent target would not “adversely affect” district performance levels or determinations about whether districts are audited.

But Schwinn also defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply.

“It has been alleged that some school district personnel and others may have interpreted the (benchmark) to mean that districts are required to achieve a special education enrollment rate of no more than 8.5%,” she wrote. “This interpretation is incorrect.”

The letter followed through on a promise to the U.S. Department of Education, which last month ordered the TEA to end the enrollment target and remind schools about the requirement to provide special education services to children with disabilities.

The department’s involvement was prompted by an investigation by the newspaper that revealed the target and showed that the TEA had quietly implemented it in 2004 while facing a $1.1 billion state budget cut and without consulting state lawmakers, federal officials or any research.

No other state has ever set a target for special education enrollment.

Since the Texas policy took effect, the percentage of public school students in the state receiving services has dropped from near the national average of 13 percent down to 8.5 percent - the lowest in the country.

Some advocates and lawmakers said the TEA’s message was undercut by its refusal to accept responsibility for the benchmark.

Dustin Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas, accused the TEA of having no credibility on the issue because it “keeps trying to sell its preposterous story that the 8.5 percent indicator was not a cap or a goal … while offering no explanation for why they awarded their best performance level to districts that served fewer than 8.5 percent of students.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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