TEA fined $33.3 million for failure to comply with IDEA | TCTA
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TEA fined $33.3 million for failure to comply with IDEA

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This article appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

After several years of back and forth between the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education regarding special education accommodations, TEA was recently fined $33.3 million for noncompliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal IDEA law ensures that all students with a disability are provided with a free and appropriate public education, tailored to their individual needs.

Problems surfaced in the 2016-17 school year, when it was reported that Texas did not spend at the appropriate rate (defined by a federal standard) on students with disabilities — a $41.6 million shortfall. A disagreement over an appropriate rate of support for special education needs resulted in a 2018 lawsuit before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the U.S. Department of Education.

Afterward, TEA pledged to implement corrective actions to comply with the law. TEA increased its spending on special education funding by nearly $1 billion over a four-year period and increased the number of students with disabilities it served by 54,710 and the number of students evaluated by 56% over a two-year period. As recently as October 2020, TEA claimed it had completed all recommendations issued by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs.

However, OSEP disagreed and found TEA was again in violation, having completed only one of the corrective actions. Federal officials gave TEA 30 days to make changes and provide evidence of those changes or it would be fined. OSEP imposed special considerations on IDEA grant awards issued to TEA, requiring in part that a Dyslexia Handbook and dyslexia program be implemented, disseminated and monitored.

TEA expressed frustration with the federal government and countered that the agency had made “good faith efforts to address the deficiencies identified,” yet OSEP failed to communicate for long stretches of time and provide technical support and guidance. The issuance of the $33.3 million fine by the U.S. Department of Education took over four years to be realized and is certainly an undesirable last step as the withholding of educational funds has a compounding effect.

The fiscal year 2022 Education Appropriations bill, which at press time is pending in the U.S. Congress, proposes a 62% increase ($25 billion) over the fiscal year 2021 enacted level for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The House Education Appropriations Committee acknowledged the historic underfunding of IDEA programs, falling consistently below the authorized level, and took action to increase the federal funding provided for special education. If the bill passes as proposed, all states should receive a significant increase in federal funding for special education. In addition, the American Rescue Plan for pandemic relief signed into law last March provided $275 million to Texas to support infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

Civil Rights Data Collection

The Civil Rights Data Collection is a U.S. Department of Education survey that is required to be completed by all public local educational agencies and schools, as well as juvenile justice facilities, charter schools, alternative schools and schools serving only students with disabilities.

The CRDC gathers and publishes data about student access to educational courses as well as school climate factors, such as use of discipline and student experiences of harassment and assault, from nearly every public school serving students from pre-K through 12th grade.

The CRDC information, which is used to report on civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity, is typically compiled every other school year. It is a valuable resource for other federal agencies, policymakers and researchers, educators and school officials, parents and students, and other members of the public who seek data on student equity and opportunity. For instance, the CRDC reporting on the total number of students enrolled in special education services may have shed a light on the lower proportion of Texas special education students served in 2017.

The 2020-21 CRDC survey was coordinated by the Trump administration, which modified the data elements collected. It added the tracking of outcomes regarding allegations of offenses made against a school staff member, allegations of harassment or bullying of K-12 students on the basis of perceived religion (adding 13 religious subcategories to specify the perceived religions targeted by harassing), and combined reporting of the number of preschool students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. It reduced questions under Early Childhood Education (inclusion of IDEA students, full- or half-day programs) and eliminated the School Finance section (full-time equivalent positions and salaries) and the tracking of first- and second-year teachers and teacher absentee data. No changes were made to the Restraint and Seclusion section.

The Biden Education Department this year notified respondents that it was adjusting the CRDC collection schedule and would require consecutive surveys, for school years 2020-21 and 2021-22. The administration’s rationale was to better gauge the effects of COVID-19 in school environments. The administration also notified respondents that the 2021-22 CRDC format would again be altered somewhat in that it would restore certain data elements removed by the Trump administration, including questions under Early Childhood Education and questions tracking first- and second-year teachers, teacher retention and teacher absentee data.

The Biden administration also proposed to restore the count of all teachers employed at the school during the current school year and to begin collecting this data by race, ethnicity and sex. They clarified Restraint and Seclusion definitions by type (mechanical or physical) and new data elements were proposed relating to virtual, hybrid and in-person instruction due to COVID-19 and the addition of a nonbinary sex category.

The proposed collection would also seek data about “the number of documented incidents of school shootings, regardless of whether anyone was hurt; and the number of documented incidents of homicides that occurred at the school.”

The Biden administration’s changes to the CRDC are presented in the Federal Register and the public may submit comments through Feb. 11. The federal notice includes the justifications for the addition of new data, the restoration of old data and the revision of data. You can review the changes and submit comments at https://www.regulations.gov/docket/ED-2021-SCC-0158.

This article is provided by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s retained lobby firm in Washington, D.C.