The status of special education funding in Texas is still undecided, even as the 86th session of the Texas Legislature comes to a close on Memorial Day.
Even with federal officials monitoring how Texas is educating students with disabilities and a fine of $223 million for violating federal law on special education funding, three of the biggest bills of the Texas Legislature this session funds special education to varying extents and are currently being negotiated by the two chambers.
Special Ed Funding Shortfall Covered in Supplemental Appropriations
The biggest source of funding for special education will potentially come from appropriations bill SB 500. The bill also fills in any gaps in funding for special education the current fiscal year.
After Texas state officials told lawmakers of the shortfall for special education for the current FY to the tune of $223 million, a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced their commitment to cover this shortfall. Advocates told Reform Austin they were informed the $223 million is expected to be in SB 500.
School Finance Reform Increases Special Ed Weight
In the biggest school finance overhaul in decades, House Bill 3, which was agreed to by both chambers this week, contains a provision to give the Texas Commissioner of Education authority to either take money from the General Fund to cover any future shortfalls or notify the Legislature to make an emergency appropriation to special education for such a shortfall.
While HB 3 does not fix the issues of the outdated special education weights in the school finance formula, it does put more money to school districts to provide special education services by increasing the “mainstream weight”, according to Steven Aleman, a policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas. The mainstream weight addresses special education students in mainstream classroom settings, as opposed to, for example, a student with a special education resource room weight.
Small and mid-sized school districts might lose their special education aid under current law based on some of the formula changes. Both chambers have tried to address that in different ways in HB 3, and it remains to be seen how it will be fixed. One solution likely to make it out of conference is a guarantee that any lost funding by school districts under the formula changes is made up by the state.
Advocates have long argued the problems with the current special education weights are as follows: they’re very old, based on outdated practices of placement and a contact hour factor for non-mainstream settings, do not cover all students with disabilities, and lack transparency and understanding.
The Legislature has only partly addressed one of these problems by setting aside funding for dyslexia identification and services in the school finance formula. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that can be served under IDEA or 504 plans depending on a students’ individual needs. Two of the lawmakers behind the school finance bill have dyslexia, Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston).
HB 3 also directs the Commissioner of Education to appoint a Special Education Allotment Advisory Committee, which will give the Legislature a report by next May. Advocates have already presented proposals to the Commission on Public School Finance and the Legislature on how to restructure the special education weights in order to sufficiently fund and address the needs of students with disabilities.
Budget Reimburses Schools $50 Million for Special Education
In HB 1, as a result of TEA’s legislative appropriation request, there is funding for reimbursing school districts for special education supports to the tune of potentially $50 million if they provide any of the following expenses for students with disabilities: compensatory services, new evaluations, allowing parents to get independent evaluations, and extended school year services.
HB 1 also contains a provision requiring the Legislative Budget Board prepare an interim report about special education expenses by the TEA to follow up on the federal requirements from the 2018 investigation.
“Certainly some big changes will happen [on special education funding] but it’s also very clear that there are still some other big issues that remain on the table that the state will need to address in the coming years,” said Aleman.
Those issues include restructuring the outdated special education weights, creating state aid to address the needs of “Section 504” students, who do not qualify for special education under federal law despite having physical and/or mental disabilities, and continuing to invest more state aid for special education in order to remove some of the burden of local school districts, who now unsustainably cover over half the cost of special education.
Correction: We previously inaccurately claimed that the students with dyslexia “are not currently eligible for special education services under federal law.” They are eligible for special education under IDEA and Section 504 plans. We regret the error. Thank you to one of our engaged readers for pointing this out to us. They noted Texas has limited special education enrollment for years, including for students with dyslexia, with similar justifications. For more information, visit Decoding Dyslexia Texas at DDTX.org.