Let’s start right in this week with the Laredo ISD case Penny Schwinn, Texas Education Agency's deputy commissioner of academics, referred to in her letter to Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, November 2 (2016). This was part of Schwinn’s response to question number four (of five) that the USDOE demanded TEA answer regarding allegations of a cap on the number of Texas students receiving special education services. The allegations were made in a September 11 Houston Chronicle report and in a follow-up article October 23.

In Schwinn’s letter, she writes that in January of 2007 when TEA notified Laredo ISD of an on-site monitoring visit, it was “as a result of having continuing noncompliance specific to initial evaluations and reevaluations,” not because of the percentage of students in the district receiving special education services. As a result of this visit, she writes, “the TEA team identified three areas of noncompliance that continued from the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years. For this reason, TEA required the district to seek outside technical assistance to correct the issues of continued noncompliance.” In a subsequent report to the district in early 2008, TEA indicated its concern over Laredo ISD’s special education rate had to do with “the rate of students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) placed into special education programs without proper identification.” (In recent years, I have heard a number of educators concerned about this—LEP students being identified as special education students due to their language barriers rather than on “proper identification.”) Schwinn then writes that the Chronicle’s report “that TEA has engaged in widespread ‘targeting’ of districts with special education representation rates higher than 8.5% is not borne out by the facts.”

Finally, Schwinn addressed the USDOE’s fifth and final question:

Has Texas’ identification rate for students with disabilities declined since TEA began using PBMAS to monitor school districts? (The TEA website explains PBMAS like this: “…the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) (is) an automated data system that reports annually on the performance of school districts and charter schools in selected program areas (bilingual education/English as a second language, career and technical education, special education, and certain Title programs under the No Child Left Behind Act).”

In Schwinn’s letter, she explains that the indicator actually began declining in 2000. PBMAS was implemented four years later. She writes that, in 2016, the rate actually increased 1.2 percent. She also identifies factors TEA believes have affected the rate, including:

1. The Texas Reading Initiative

2. The development of high-quality professional development in reading, specific to struggling readers

3. In 1997, a provision was added to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) that inadequate instruction in reading or math and having limited English proficiency should not result in a child being identified as needing special education services. Rather, she said, these factors indicate a need for school improvement.

4. Standardized test scores for students with disabilities began counting toward the school’s accountability (Schwinn noted that a year after this took effect is when “the noticeable decline in special education rates began,” though she doesn’t explain how the two are related.)

5. Districts have a clearer understanding of special education eligibility and have implemented programs like Response to Intervention (RTI).

Before closing her letter, Schwinn promised the USDOE that TEA would do the following:

1. Send a letter to all Texas school districts reminding them of the IDEA requirements

2. Expand their agency’s technical support for districts

3. Not use Indicator 10 for the purpose of interventions staging moving forward (This one confused me as I thought the letter emphasized that TEA does not do this?)

I planned to end this week’s column with TEA’s direct response to what they called “inaccuracies” in the Chronicle’s report; however, I ran out of space. Next week I want to address the public hearing TEA and the USDOE held at the Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg December 13, so if you would like me to send you those “inaccuracies,” please send me an email, and I will be happy to do so. Until next week…. 

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.