TX school districts have to find millions of dollars to fund special education after federal ruling

The cuts are a result of a billing disagreement between the state and federal governments dating back to 2017.

Thursday, January 11, 2024
Texas school districts to see $300M less per year in special ed funds
Some Texas school districts, including Houston and Cy-Fair ISD, are losing millions of dollars in special education funding after a federal ruling.

Texas will lose millions of dollars in annual funding for special education, following a ruling in a legal fight about a billing disagreement between school districts and the federal government. Two of the ones expected to take the biggest hits? CyFair ISD and Houston ISD.

Parents and advocates expressed concern about how the loss in funding will impact what they called an already-strained special education system in Texas. They said state lawmakers have had an opportunity to increase funding for students with special needs, and they are frustrated that it hasn't been done.

Jose Sanchez is the proud father of 19-year-old Alex, who receives special education at T.H. Rogers in Houston ISD. He explained that Alex experiences seizures, has multiple impairments, uses a wheelchair, and requires round-the-clock care.

In their experience, Sanchez said navigating the special needs system in Texas hasn't been easy for his family. They believe there are not enough resources to provide children like his with adequate care.

"It's hard to be the parent of a special needs child. You could really get lost in the system if you're new to this. There's no handbook to guide you on where to go and what to do. You constantly have to ask questions and be an advocate for your child," he said. "This is just me, but I feel like we're just treated as last instead of number one."

That's why he's deeply concerned that Texas will now lose $300 million a year in federal funding for special education. According to our partners at the Houston Chronicle, this comes after a ruling in a legal fight that began in 2017.

A federal audit found Texas schools were not using proper coding when providing certain medical services to special education students, resulting in overpayments. School districts qualify for partial reimbursements if they provide medical services directly to students with special needs, rather than a doctor or nurse.

The state has historically received about $700 million under the program. With the ruling, the state will now receive about $300 million less per year going forward.

"We're going to see kids not getting served, and we're going to see districts scraping just to get by," Jolene Sanders, advocacy director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said. "They will find creative ways not to serve kids or serve them minimally."

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ABC13's news partners at the Houston Chronicle reported that dozens of districts stand to lose at least $1 million in the upcoming school year. CyFair ISD and Houston ISD are two of three districts that will face shortfalls of more than $10 million.

A spokesperson with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission explained that school districts are reimbursed differently as they serve varied populations of children with disabilities and request reimbursements for different types of professionals at various levels.

School districts will likely look to the state to make up the shortfall, which cannot happen until the next legislative session. In the meantime, some districts will have to make cuts elsewhere as schools are bound by law to provide a certain level of services to students with special needs.

Advocates said they've been pushing state lawmakers for years to increase funding toward public education and special needs programs. They're disappointed that Texas did not increase school budgets this past legislative session or any of its four subsequent special sessions when the state sat on a surplus of $30 billion.

"Our state is not fully funding special education services for students. We, as a state, slept on a prime opportunity this last session to revamp a funding formula that hasn't been updated in more than 30 years," Sanders said. "Certain lawmakers decided to prioritize this very divisive issue of education savings accounts and vouchers. I think we got our priorities wrong."

CyFair ISD and Houston ISD did not return requests from ABC13 for comment.