Houston ISD leaders say state’s special-ed plan falls short in helping districts
Houston ISD leaders on Thursday criticized state lawmakers and the Texas Education Agency for failing to properly fund public education and, specifically, special education services.
In a meeting with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Superintendent Richard Carranza and board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones knocked the TEA’s action plan draft for dealing with special education. They noted that while the agency is asking the state for $84.5 million in new funds, few of those dollars would help districts shore up their programs.
Carranza said it was the state that had penalized school districts if they identified more than 8.5 percent of their students as special education, a move that appeared to be driven by cost savings.
“The state really needs to take the responsibility now of saying, ‘If you have a student with disabilities, we understand that there’s an additional cost associated with that, and that cost should be provided to (independent school districts), so there’s no barrier to students getting what they need in school,” Carranza said.
The state’s plan calls for hiring 46 new TEA staff members to oversee district efforts to fix special education practices, and contracting with third-party vendors to provide information to families and professional development to teachers. It also recommends a state fund to help school districts pay for providing compensatory special education services to students who were denied in the past, but districts would still have to shoulder most of those costs.
In Houston ISD, the district has already added several special education parent liaisons, tasked with helping guide parents through the often confusing path to getting children tested for and enrolled in special education. They’ve provided professional training to principals, hired an external auditor to review the special education department and created an ad hoc committee to study the subject.
Carranza said he has not heard any conversations about the state covering such additional costs.
“If there’s anything we would say to the state of Texas, it’s that you have to be able to invest in the services for students with disabilities,” Carranza said. “Whatever the accountability plan is going to be for those changes, the state has to step up and have increased accountability in terms of funding to meet the needs of our students.”
Lauren Callahan, a spokeswoman for the TEA, stressed that the corrective action plan submitted to the governor is still in draft form. She encouraged parents and educators, including Superintendent Carranza, to send them fee back by either completing this survey or by emailing TexasSPED@tea.texas.gov.
“We are seeking every public comment we can get, and from that feedback there will be revision,” Callahan said. “We’re taking every comment that comes in seriously and are giving each one a good, hard look.”
Funding is a sensitive subject for Houston ISD.
On Saturday, HISD CFO Rene Barajas said the district will likely face a $200 million budget shortfall during the next school year. In order to fill that hole, Barajas proposed drastic changes to the way Houston ISD funds and staffs its schools. Those include shifting staffing and many spending decisions from principals to central administration, cutting roughly $116 million in non-school-related costs and reshaping how the district operates its school choice programs.
Skillern-Jones said she expects she and her fellow trustees will feel parents’ fury about these proposed changes and spending cuts, especially if they’re approved. She said she found it curious that folks often criticize school districts for program and staffing cuts when the state provides fewer and fewer dollars to public education.
In the 2017 legislative session, state lawmakers passed a budget that shifted nearly $1.1 billion in public education costs from the state to local taxpayers. They also failed to pass school finance reform and instead formed a working committee to study the long-debated issue.
Skillern-Jones said it’s easier to vent and vote out school board trustees because they live in the community and hold public meetings in town once a month.
“But we continually see people in Austin not being held accountable,” Skillern-Jones said. “Where’s the pushback when the $5 billion from education was cut (in 2011)? It still hasn’t been fully restored – where is the pushback? Where is the pushback now that special education from Austin now isn’t being restored? When we were down there fighting during the special session and got nothing for public education, even though we have needs, where was the pushback then?”
“But yet when we make the changes necessary to keep the school district’s doors open, let alone keep it viable, but keep the doors open, then we get pushback,” Skillern-Jones added. “These are hard choices we have to make because we have to, not because we feel like it.”