When it comes to providing programs and services to students with disabilities, most school districts in Texas are grappling with a fundamental challenge: how to effectively manage the rapid increase in the number of students being referred to special education for evaluation and placement.

The surge in special education enrollment in Texas districts over the past two years is largely in response to a highly publicized investigative report published by the Houston Chronicle, which alleged that the Texas Education Agency’s arbitrary special education enrollment target of 8.5%, which was established in 2004 and was part of the state’s accountability scoring, incentivized districts to cap the percent of students served in special education programs, essentially denying some students access to programs and services to which they were entitled under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Since then, many Texas districts have been scrambling to identify more students with disabilities. In fact, the percent of students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in Texas has ticked up from 8.7% in 2016 to 9.2% in 2018, which translates to roughly 35,000 more students being served in special education programs. However, this percentage is still well below the national average of 13%, which means that special education enrollment in Texas is likely to continue to increase—rapidly.

Through our recent work with several Texas school districts, it is evident that district leaders sincerely want to provide high quality special education programs and services to all eligible students, but they often lack the organizational capacity to do it efficiently and effectively. Some of the challenges experienced by many of our client districts that have exacerbated this issue include:

  • Early intervention programs, such as Response to Intervention (RtI), are not implemented consistently or with fidelity throughout the district. Although the lack of an effective RtI program often results in too many students being referred to special education, it can also have the opposite effect. Well-intentioned districts sometimes delay referrals to special education as they attempt to support students endlessly with Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions.
  • The full individual and initial evaluations (FIIEs) do not include a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about a child, and/or the assessment instruments are not technically sound (i.e., they have not been shown to be valid and reliable through research). Together, these two issues prevent districts from being able to accurately determine whether a child has a disability under IDEA, the specific nature of the child’s special needs, and whether the child needs special education and related services. Further, these issues can lead to bias in the evaluation process as well as a disproportionate representation of some subgroups in special education.
  • The competition to attract, hire, and retain a highly qualified special education workforce—namely teachers, Licensed Specialists in School Psychology (LSSPs), and Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs)—is stiff. As the number of students referred to special education continues to increase statewide, the demand for these positions, which are already in short supply, is also increasing. Some LSSPs and SLPs in our client districts have reported delays in conducting re-evaluations and in providing direct services to students, which they attribute to the increased workload associated with conducting initial evaluations. Districts often turn to subcontracted resources to fill staffing gaps, which is costly.

As the number of students served in special education programs continues to increase, districts must evaluate their existing systems and processes in order to build the organizational capacity necessary to support program growth. If you would like information on how Gibson can assist your district in addressing some of these challenges, please contact Ms. Keri Munkwitz.