One more Texas takeover: State seizing control of special ed in Austin ISD

Austin ISD had a backlog of more than 1,800 special education evaluations as of March, according to local reports.

It’s not a total takeover, but Texas education officials are now stepping in to manage special education in Austin ISD, one of the state’s largest districts.  The Texas Education Agency’s move to appoint conservators at Austin ISD comes on the heels of the state’s announcement last month that it will completely take control of the state’s largest school system, Houston ISD.

A Texas Education Agency investigation, launched in 2021, has uncovered “systemic issues” in Austin ISD’s special education department, The Texas Tribune reported. Agency officials said in a 31-page report that Austin ISD failed to follow a state-imposed improvement plan that found the district did not evaluate students in need of special education or provide services to those students, according to The Texas Tribune. 

More than 13% of Austin ISD’s students—some 10,032—require or receive special education services and as of March 20, 1,808 special education evaluations were overdue, reported.

“TEA’s final investigative report sheds light on the systemic issues found within Austin ISD’s Special Education Department and the district’s shortcomings in identifying and providing services for students with disabilities,” the TEA said in a statement cited by the Austin American-Statesman. “The lack of support for these students has significantly hampered their ability to achieve academic success and negatively impacted their school experience.”

Under a conservatorship, Austin ISD’s board of trustees and interim superintendent will remain in place—unlike the state’s takeover in Houston, which will include the replacement of Superintendent Millard House II and the school board with a new district leader and an appointed management team. Also unlike in Houston, where liberal activists have accused the state of targeting a majority Black and Hispanic district, this latest takeover has gained the support of even Democratic officials.

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“I have been aware of AISD’s shortcomings regarding students in special education for some time now,” state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) said in a statement. “In fact, it has been a challenge to access these services for my own son in AISD. AISD’s deficiencies regarding our students in special education are unacceptable.”

In Austin, the team of conservators will help the special education team catch up on evaluations and deliver services, the district’s board of trustees said, adding that educators there have been working for many months to make improvements, including:

  • Creating a centralized database to track evaluations and implementing new systems to support special education services on campus and at the central office.
  • Working closely with a nationally recognized special education expert to provide training for campus teams and central office staff.
  • Launching an aggressive recruitment effort to hire educational diagnosticians and licensed specialists in school psychology, including annual incentives of up to $20,000.
  • Forming an ad hoc committee of our board that meets multiple times a month to monitor activities and progress.
  • Communicating with the public with new openness and transparency about the needs the district is working to address.

The board of trustees was set to review the Texas Education Agency’s report at a special meeting on Monday night. In Houston, meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights groups has filed a federal complaint against the state, claiming the takeover violates the rights of district voters to choose their own school leaders.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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