Has AISD Cleared its Special Education Backlog, or Not?

On June 30, Austin ISD made an announcement: its once-egregious backlog of hundreds of uncompleted special education evaluations was “no more.” The backlog, which had prompted a lawsuit and the complete reorganization of AISD’s special-ed department, was “due to be cleared by the district’s promised deadline of July 1.”

In an update it sent to the Texas Education Agency that same day — June 30 — AISD had a different message. Although the district had made substantial progress toward determining the special education needs of most of the students who have been waiting, 77 initial evaluations remained incomplete. The district told TEA it would aim to finish those by July 15. “The official written document didn’t show a complete catch-up,” Dustin Rynders, the supervising attorney for education at Disability Rights Texas (DRTX), told the Chronicle. “I still think we’re seeing a real lack of honesty and candor from the district.”

Austin ISD has been publicly grappling with its special-ed troubles since March, when the Chronicle reported on the families who have waited, often for months, for AISD to complete the initial evaluations and re-evaluations the district is mandated to provide. These assessments determine whether children are eligible for particular special education services, and their timelines are strictly regulated by state and federal law. The chronic delays at AISD led to a lawsuit from DRTX, a protection and advocacy agency, alleging that students with disabilities who are entitled to receive services have been denied those opportunities by AISD’s failures.

The backlog came about after many of the district’s evaluators, such as licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs), resigned en masse in late 2019, and was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. To attempt to catch up this spring despite continued staff shortages, AISD worked with contracted evaluators from A.I.M. Partners in Education. It has also made big internal changes: gathering community input in a publicized survey, hiring a new special education director, asking Central Office special-ed staff to reapply to their positions. “The special education reorganization is 90% complete, and the department looks to enter the school year with no backlog and a clean slate,” the AISD website notes.

However, Rynders said, despite the progress made, DRTX will continue to pursue its lawsuit against the district, as evaluations are only the first step in getting students with disabilities the services they need. Rynders noted that the district has not publicized its progress on holding the meetings with parents and educators that determine each student’s individualized education plan (IEP) and what services it includes. Nor has AISD discussed how it plans to provide compensatory services for students who now need extra assistance because of the delays.

“Quite a few assessments have been done. I think that’s wonderful. Unfortunately, we don’t have the rest of the story,” Rynders said. “The whole reason that assessment matters is that assessment drives a plan for a child who’s struggling, and if the meeting hasn’t been held to develop a plan in advance of next school year, then it’s definitely too early to celebrate. Because that is still a child who’s going to start the next school year without the services they need in place.”

The district also declined last week to provide the Chronicle last week on the numbers of pending re-evaluations, required by law every three years. In February, we reported that around 500 re-evaluations were delayed; the DRTX lawsuit estimates that as many as 1,600 students could be impacted. The district is closed for summer holiday this week; we’ll have more coverage of this story online and in our July 16 print issue.