By WILL WEISSERT
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday that Texas violated federal law for more than a decade by denying thousands of students with disabilities access to special education services.
Authorities found that the Texas Education Agency failed to ensure an "appropriate public education was made available to all children with disabilities" in the nation's second largest state, by not fully identifying and evaluating disabled students nor meeting "general supervisory and monitoring responsibilities."
"Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services" under the Disabilities Education Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement.
That conclusion comes after the department dispatched officials to Texas to meet with parents, students, school administrators and state officials following a series of 2016 stories in the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper's investigation revealed that in 2004, Texas quietly instituted an arbitrary 8.5-percent enrollment cap on the number of students eligible to get special education instruction.
In a report Thursday, the Department of Education said that 14 years ago, Texas "implemented a special education representation indicator of 8.5 percent to measure the percentage of students enrolled in special education and related services." It said the number of students identified as disabled subsequently fell by 32,000 from the 2003-2004 school year through the 2016-2017 one.
Texas' education agency, known as the TEA, has denied using a cap on the number of students eligible for special education services. Still, a law approved by the Legislature last year is designed to prevent future limits. The federal report called for implementing more changes, but it gave no timeline.
"While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential," DeVos said.
That wasn't enough, however, for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who demanded an immediate overhaul of special education policies. He gave TEA a week to produce "an initial corrective action plan draft" and sought an outline of longer term changes that state lawmakers can consider when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.
"The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of TEA to hold districts accountable, are worthy of criticism," Abbott said in a statement Thursday. "Our parents and students demand significant actions be taken now to improve special education in Texas."
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath responded a short time later by saying he shares Abbott's "urgency to quickly address the issues identified."
"The corrective action plan called for by the governor will outline the specific steps TEA will take to address all the identified issues," Morath said in a statement. "My top priority has and continues to be to improve outcomes for all students in Texas."