Texas Education Agency chooses familiar face to lead special education overhaul

Texas Education Agency officials Penny Schwinn and Justin Porter listen to testimony at a hearing on special education in Richardson on April 16, 2018.
Texas Education Agency officials Penny Schwinn and Justin Porter listen to testimony at a hearing on special education in Richardson on April 16, 2018.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

For the first time in nine months, the Texas Education Agency has a special education director, as it continues a massive overhaul of the way it oversees the education for thousands of students with disabilities.

Last Friday, Justin Porter, previously the TEA’s executive director of special populations, was officially hired as statewide director of special education — allowing him to continue his outsize role in directing how the agency will ensure school districts are serving kids with special needs. A federal investigation this winter concluded that Texas was illegally denying students with disabilities access to the tools and services they need to learn.

With the effective cap on special education services lifted, the agency is projecting that its percentage of students in special education, once at a national low of 8.5 percent statewide, will level out at around 12.2 percent by 2021 — hundreds of thousands more students.

That increase will cost the state an estimated additional $3 billion, according to Leo Lopez, the TEA’s chief school finance officer. But the agency will have a more realistic estimate of the cost increase at the end of the current academic year, likely after lawmakers approve a two-year state budget during the 2019 legislative session.

A nearly seven-year veteran of the agency, Porter will be in charge of a more robust department developing policies on how to use state and federal special education funds, and reaching out to state and local groups advocating for kids with disabilities. He will report to a yet-unnamed deputy commissioner of populations and monitoring, who will report to Penny Schwinn, the chief deputy commissioner of academics.

The TEA is still in the throes of a major reorganization, based on its special education strategic plan, which Porter helped develop this spring. The deputy commissioner of populations and monitoring will oversee Porter and four other department directors to perform new roles, including monitoring school districts’ compliance with federal special education law and providing technical assistance to educators.

The agency has already hired a director of review and support, a director of escalation, and a director of dispute resolution and strategic supports — and it plans to hire a director of special populations. In total, the TEA has hired about 70 percent of an approved 51 positions to carry out its strategic plan for special education, according to TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson.

Porter’s predecessor, Laurie Kash, was fired last November, after she filed a federal complaint against the agency, claiming it illegally awarded a $4.4 million no-bid special education contract.

The TEA said it fired her because she had hidden allegations from a prior job that she had covered up sexual abuse of a minor. Months after Kash’s firing, the agency terminated the contract and conducted an internal audit of its contracting processes.

Special education advocates had angrily railed against Schwinn and Porter for entering into the contract with data mining company SPEDx, arguing it would not help find and help the thousands of students who have been denied special education services for years.

Since then, Porter has been regularly meeting with special education advocates and parents to hear feedback and share the agency’s plans.

“I think he’s been generally pretty responsive to the special education community, having an open door policy of us having face-to-face meetings with him and taking into account our feedback, ” said Steven Aleman, policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas.



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