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Texas education agency moves to appoint conservators for Austin ISD

A third-grade student takes notes at Linder Elementary School in Austin in 2022.
Miranda Lipton for The Texas Tribune
A third-grade student takes notes at Linder Elementary School in Austin in 2022.

The Texas Education Agency on Friday said it will move to appoint conservators to oversee the Austin Independent School District, citing the district’s failings in serving students receiving special education.

The TEA said in a statement that it had been investigating the district’s special education department and found that it had “systemic issues.”

“The Agency has developed a rigorous plan for AISD to implement so it can return to state and federal compliance and begin appropriately serving students in need of special education services as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

Austin ISD's board of trustees said in a statement Friday evening that conservators selected by the TEA would work with the district to provide special education services to students with disabilities. The board also said the district has a right to appeal the conservatorship, but did not state whether it would do so.

"We are focused on our students, and we welcome collaboration with TEA to help us catch up on long-overdue evaluations. We are united in our focus to ensure that all students receive what they need, when they need it," the statement read.

The board plans to hold a public meeting to address the conservatorship and allow for public comment on Monday evening.

The TEA shared with The Texas Tribune the final report of its investigation into Austin ISD. In it, the agency said the district failed to evaluate students in need of special education services and to provide those services to eligible students. The district was placed on an improvement plan but did not make significant fixes, the report said.

The announcement comes two weeks after the TEA announced it would replace the Houston Independent School District's current superintendent and the school board with its own “board of managers” in response to years of poor academic outcomes. Houston ISD had a conservator in place before the TEA moved to take over the district. The agency said one of the reasons it took over the Houston school district was because it had a conservator in place for two school years.

Civil rights organizations on Friday launched a federal complaint against the agency’s takeover of Houston ISD, claiming that move takes away the rights of voters of color to choose their own school officials.

A conservator acts as a manager of the school district, ensuring that the school board and superintendent are taking the necessary steps to solve any issues flagged by the state’s education agency. According to the TEA’s website, a conservator can “direct the action of a campus principal, superintendent, or board of trustees.”

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said in a press release that she is aware of Austin ISD’s shortcomings regarding special education but believes the district is on the right track after electing four new board members and putting an interim superintendent in place this past November.

“They have briefed me on their plans to turn around the special education department in AISD. I believe that we were finally on track to do right by our kids,” she said. “I am dismayed by [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath’s decision to install a conservatorship in our school district at this time.”

Hinojosa said there is bipartisan anger at TEA over the way the agency has imposed itself on districts, adding that lawmakers could find ways to scale back the agency’s authority.

“This is a severe intervention,” Hinojosa said. “This is the first step taken against Austin ISD.”

Austin ISD is currently facing a lawsuit over its special education practices. In the suit, Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy organization, alleges that the district had been behind on evaluating more than 800 students who might need special education services.

Texas schools have long been under the microscope when it comes to special education. A 2018 federal investigation found that the state had been effectively denying students with disabilities the tools and services they need in order to learn, in violation of federal law. In 2020, the federal government found that the TEA had not done enough to serve all special education students.

“It's shocking — with both Houston and AISD — that the commissioner, who has failed in the area of special ed, would take over Austin ISD for special education reasons when he is greatly to blame,” said David DeMatthews, an associate professor at the University of Texas Austin's College of Education.

DeMatthews said the issues with special education aren’t unique to Austin, noting that the state doesn’t have sufficient special education teachers, or related service providers, to meet the needs of Texas students.

“We have a broken pipeline. There were 43,000 teachers who left last year and we're not doing a good job replacing those teachers,” he said. “And in special ed, it's worse.”

William Melhado contributed to this story.

From The Texas Tribune

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