After spending nearly two decades working in Houston ISD and four years fighting to get special education services for her second grade daughter, Nicole Tripp predicted state investigators reviewing the district’s handling of students with disabilities would find extensive issues.
As she expected, the Texas Education Agency released a blistering report late Tuesday that documented numerous violations of special education laws in HISD, findings that mirrored Tripp’s experience as a parent and former employee.
“You’re going to have some factors outside of the district’s control, but I do think that what I saw in HISD, before leaving, was intentional mismanagement that I don’t see in other districts,” said Tripp, who worked in HISD’s special education department from 2000 to 2018, most recently as an assistive technology specialist leader.
The state’s wide-ranging report on Houston ISD’s special education department, the result of an 11-month investigation into Texas’ largest school district, validated the long-held beliefs of some parents and advocates Wednesday as community members began to digest the conclusions.
At the same time, some HISD leaders and observers said the report did little to increase confidence in the TEA’s ability to rectify deep-seated problems in the department.
While the agency’s investigators are recommending the appointment of a conservator to oversee changes in the district, the state’s recent history of limiting access to special education services left some skeptical about whether such a move would prompt any significant change. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has not announced whether he will accept his investigators’ recommendation.
“The report says that Houston hasn’t stepped up and fixed things. OK, true, but TEA has also not stepped up and fixed things,” said Sonja Kerr, an Austin-based attorney who represents families in special education disputes across Texas.
In their report, the product of a special accreditation investigation launched in October 2019, TEA officials wrote that HISD has not fixed “significant, systemic and widespread” issues with the delivery of special education services despite numerous warnings. The findings largely echoed reports on HISD’s special education practices commissioned by district trustees in 2011 and 2018.
READ THE REPORT: See the full state report on HISD special education here
In particular, the investigators concluded HISD still fails to identify students with disabilities, does not provide legally entitled services and lacks the structures needed to hold staff members accountable for delivering support. Investigators said they based their conclusions on dozens of staff interviews, an analysis of student records and the paucity of data provided by the district.
HISD administrators disagreed with the findings, calling the report “factually and legally incorrect.”
District staff argued that state officials dwelled on years-old data and noted the TEA’s role in setting a since-abandoned arbitrary cap aimed at ensuring no more than 8.5 percent of Texas students received special education services. The U.S. Department of Education found the cap violated federal law, resulting in a corrective action plan submitted by the TEA in 2018.
Still, some parents and advocates continued this week to describe battles over when to evaluate students for disabilities, squabbles over the implementation of individualized education programs, and encounters with ill-informed or uninterested campus administrators.
“I realize HISD is a gigantic school district and it’s hard to get everyone on board, but if you have good leadership at the top, it helps,” said Family to Family Network Executive Director Mary Jane Williams, whose Houston-based nonprofit helps families navigate special education in schools. “I think sometimes they hire great people, and they get so frustrated with the system being so bad that they leave.”
HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who chaired a district committee evaluating special education services in 2018, said she still was analyzing the state’s findings and awaiting a copy of the district administration’s full response to the TEA report.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done across the system to improve special education. It’s not a small project,” Sung said. “I would be shocked if anybody investigated special education in HISD and said there was no problem.”
HISD administrators created a three-year plan to address reports in 2018 by Sung’s committee and the American Institutes of Research, both of which documented numerous areas where special education needed improvement.
FROM 2018: An HISD committee deemed the district’s state of special education “grave”
Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration reported in June that nearly 50 proposed changes were made or remained on track — though state investigators questioned the impact of those moves.
If Morath appoints a conservator, the state official would work with Lathan’s administrative team for now. However, Morath remains in a legal battle with HISD trustees over his effort to replace the district’s school board, the result of a separate investigation into trustee misconduct as well as chronically low accountability ratings at Wheatley High School.
If Morath succeeds in ousting the board, he also could select a new permanent superintendent to pair with the conservator.
The prospect of intensive state involvement in HISD has left many district observers wary. Trustee Elizabeth Santos said she believes state officials historically have underfunded HISD and distracted from important work with unnecessary test-driven mandates.
“We haven’t been able to focus on what we need to focus on because we keep being thrown these hoops to jump through,” Santos said. “TEA should back off and let us do the work.”
In a statement, TEA officials said the state has increased spending on special education from $3 billion to $4 billion over the past five years, while also raising the percent of students receiving special education services from about 9 percent to nearly 11 percent.
“The Texas Education Agency recognizes that some stakeholders remain concerned about certain state policies that were in place prior to 2016,” the statement read. “TEA is committed to improving student support across Texas, and has markedly improved special education for Texas students and families during the past four years. Statewide data clearly demonstrates that improvement.”
Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney of the Education Team at Disability Rights Texas, said while some of the issues outlined in the report can be found in other districts across the state, HISD stands alone in some instances. The percent of HISD students receiving special education services went virtually unchanged between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the most recent year with available data, while many other districts reported increases.
“Since the cap was lifted we saw eligibility numbers statewide begin to come up in most districts, but HISD is an outlier,” Rynders said. “It’s rare for a district to go even lower when others are trying to find students they missed during the cap.”