In-Depth: Special Education in the House Education Budget

house appropriations sc on article iii

AUSTIN, TX – The House Appropriations Subcommittee (S/C) on Article III held a meeting Wednesday, February 20th to listen to testimony on House Budget recommendations for the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Testifying before the committee were members of the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
The LBB reported on the state of the special education allotment. HB1 includes an $1.05 billion increase to cover the growth of the special education student population, which is well over the projected cost of $882 million. The LBB estimates the special ed population growth will be a 0.5 percent increase of total student population per year from Fiscal Years 2019-2021. Morath testified the special education population is 9.2 percent of all Texas public school students.
HB1 also includes $50.5 million in special education supports, which would reimburse local districts for increased costs in Comp Ed for identifying students needing special education services.
Relatedly, Morath suggested how helpful increased funding for initial diagnosis would be for local school districts, who currently bear the entire cost. There is an incentive for school districts to not identify students for special education because should the student be deemed ineligible, the schools do not draw state funds for special education.
The House base budget also funds 54 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) for TEA’s Strategic Plan to address the Corrective Action Response to maintain adequate funding for special education. LBB and Morath testified this was supported by federal funds. Morath told the subcommittee TEA has already hired and filled the 54 FTEs. Rep. Gonzalez asked about their qualifications, and Matt Montoya, TEA Deputy Commissioner for Special Populations, testified 95 percent of the hires have experience in the field in special education, came from schools and service centers, and have at minimum a graduate degree in special education.
Morath also testified on the timeline of the federal government’s case with TEA for not complying with federal laws to assure states spend consistently on special education. In early 2016, the federal government sent a letter to TEA about the $33 million in cuts to special education in 2012. TEA is currently in settlement talks with the federal government after a federal court agreed with the Department of Education on the amount of the cuts.
Morath suggested one way to appease the federal government for settlement purposes would be to include $33 million in supplemental appropriations for special education. Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) asked about the total cut to special education since then until 2018. Morath testified the amount is somewhere between $111-117 million. If the state fills the void within the next 5 years, Texas has the ability to access the same amount in federal funds. This can be done if appropriation for special ed language is included in the Foundation School Program formula.
Rep. Gonzalez asked Commissioner Morath to talk about unspent money on special education. He testified TEA federal funds for special education are split into two buckets, administrative and discretionary. TEA currently receives $115 million a year from the federal government. In 2016, Morath’s first year as commissioner, he testified noticing $80 million of federal funds given to TEA for discretionary funds had not been allocated over time because “no periodic review was done by TEA.” He said all of the funds have been since allocated, but was unsure if all had been spent yet.
Rep. Gonzalez asked the LBB to ascertain how much of the $100 million, which was appropriated in the 2018-2019 biennium for special education, was spent.
When asked if the staff cuts to TEA in 2002 and 2011 affected special education oversight, Morath responded the first cut did, and it was not restored until his tenure.
Reform Austin previously reported on the dire state of special education funding and will continue to track it during the 86th Legislative Session.

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