AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Special education programs in Texas have seen a sharp increase in enrollment after a policy that directed school districts to limit such services was lifted.
The Houston Chronicle reports that more than 477,000 students received special education services in the 2016-17 school year, an increase of about 14,000 students from the previous school year.
Almost 9 percent of Texas students use special education resources, according to data from the state's Public Education Information Management System. Nationwide, about 13 percent of students received special education services in 2016.
"Unfortunately, changing the culture of denial is proving to be a slow process," said Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. "Our special education rate remains far lower than the national average, and we still hear from parents every week whose children are falling through the cracks."
The Texas Education Agency enacted a policy in 2004 to limit special education services to no more than 8.5 percent of students. The agency removed that policy last year, after a newspaper investigation found thousands of students with disabilities didn't have access to necessary services.
Agency officials said the 8.5 percent distinction wasn't a cap, but rather a benchmark that would indicate school districts' performance.
Districts must identify and provide all special education services to students who need them, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.
"All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need," Callahan said.
The state passed legislation earlier this year that prohibits the creation of a target number of students who can enroll in special education. Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, introduced the legislation and said enrollment numbers are still low.
"It's not just about pushing the numbers up," Wu said. "What do you do with the kids who are way behind because they weren't given the support they needed?"