TEA Is Taking Over Special Ed at AISD and Parents Aren’t Happy

Now that’s the tea

AISD interim Superintendent Matias Segura (l) and AISD Board President Arati Singh discuss the TEA conservatorship at AISD headquarters on April 1 (photo by John Anderson)

It's partly the irony that has disgusted parents and teachers at Austin ISD. The Texas Education Agency, under federal investigation since 2020 for mishandling special education services in the state, announced on March 31 that it would be installing a group of managers to oversee the provision of these same services in Austin's public schools.

The move is known in education circles as a "conservatorship." Conservatorships are frightening for school districts, but this one won't seize as much control as TEA's takeover of Houston ISD two weeks ago, which involved the dismissal of its elected board of trustees and superintendent. AISD's board and interim Superintendent Matias Segura will remain in their positions, while TEA's people join AISD's in addressing special education. For their part, Segu­ra and the trustees presented a calm front after the announcement, issuing a statement: "We welcome collaboration with TEA."

That sentiment is not widely shared. On April 3, the board held a meeting to discuss TEA's plans. They heard several dozen prerecorded comments, many from members of AISD's employees union, Education Austin. The vast majority condemned TEA for stepping in, noting the ongoing federal investigation. They also expressed support for Segura and the board and asked them to appeal the decision.

Tracy Hopkins, a fourth-grade teacher, said the new board, elected in November, needs time to turn the special education crisis around. "We elected a board that we know will do better than the prior board and administration for students with disabilities," Hopkins said. "TEA deciding on a conservatorship is a political move, not a sincere one." Most parents agreed. "I am skeptical of TEA's motives and I just want to tell you we are with you and support you," said Alison Dwyer, a mother of four.

Several parents expressed support for the intervention, however, telling stories of their frustrating attempts to secure services for their children. Tara Trower, a mother of two, said school officials were very slow to evaluate her child for autism after they initially diagnosed her with emotional difficulties. "I've been engaged in an incredibly frustrating four-year battle to get my youngest child properly evaluated," she said. "In the spring of 2020 I requested a reevaluation, specifically for autism. Despite being promised a timely evaluation, it was not completed until the fall of 2022."

All sides agree this is the heart of the problem: The district's evaluation process for determining which students get services slowed to a crawl during the COVID pandemic. Pam Kaminsky, an attorney for the district, described how the evaluation process bogged down. "This was a perfect storm if there ever was one," Kaminsky said. "There was an increase in the evaluations and referrals for special education well before the COVID lockdown ever happened. ... And then COVID happened and the lockdown ended up impacting the ability to do evaluations." During this same time, AISD lost a flood of special education staff, including many evaluators. Figures presented at the meeting show that only 22 of 75 evaluator positions are currently filled. The shortage of evaluators has led to waits longer than a year for students seeking services.

Segura said that at his appointment in January he understood the special education crisis was the most immediate one facing the district. "It was made clear in every conversation I had with each and every trustee on the dais that special education was the single priority, amongst all others, that had to be put at the top," he said. He explained the "Priority 1A plan" that he and the trustees have devised to track each of the hundreds of students in the evaluation process, but said stakeholders should expect the plan to take up to two years to work, given the scale of the problem.

Segura and the trustees ended the meeting without saying whether they will appeal TEA's conservatorship plan. They have until April 17 to do so.

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Austin ISD, Texas Education Agency, Special Education

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