The State of Our Children: Special Education / Part I

WORDS
The Texas Tribune writers and DFWChild editors
ILLUSTRATION
John J. Custer
PUBLISHED
March 2017 in
DallasChild, FortWorthChild, NorthTexasChild, CollinChild
UPDATED
March 8, 2017
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 The status quo: The current system continues to fail thousands of kids with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental illness and other special needs.

The U.S. Department of Education officials proceed with their investigation into whether the state purposely excluded students from receiving special education services (thanks to the exposé by the Houston Chronicle). They are collecting information on whether the Texas Education Agency (TEA) violated federal law in the way it evaluated students for special education by capping special education services at a low rate of 8.5 percent and purposely excluding eligible students.

Texas actually serves the smallest share of special education students. The national average is 13 percent.
Why would they do this? The state has reportedly saved billions of dollars by denying services to tens of thousands of children, according to the Houston Chronicle.
TEA officials have repeatedly denied capping special education services, saying school districts may have misunderstood the 8.5 percent rate as an absolute maximum for the rate of students served.
All Texas schools misunderstood this? Really?

Consider this
With increased federal attention on the low percentage of Texas students receiving special education services, the state is poised to ensure the number of students receiving such services will increase over the next year. And disability rights advocates are hoping to go even further, aiming to improve the overall quality of those services. 
 
Those advocates want school officials to reduce the rates at which black students are labeled as learning disabled — experts say that student group has been overrepresented for decades in special ed. They also want to increase the rate of English-language learners, whom educators can often mistake for having language challenges rather than disabilities.

Several legislators have filed bills to prohibit the state from capping special education services at 8.5 percent. State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso is one of them. He says the Legislature should figure out how to "ensure every single special education student in this state gets the special education program that they deserve." His bill, Senate Bill 160, also says districts should continue to monitor the percentages of specific racial or ethnic groups receiving special education services, to ensure they are not overrepresented or underrepresented.
“The hope is that the kids who need the services will get the services. We don’t want it to mean that kids are funneled into services they don't need,” says Rachel Gandy, mental health policy fellow at Disability Rights Texas. She wants the Legislature to ensure students who have been denied special education services in the past get the support they need. 
 
State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, says he worries Texas schools could overidentify even more students for special education if school districts focus on increasing their special ed student rates. As a legislator in the 90s, he heard from parents of black and Hispanic students who had been labeled learning disabled just because they were grade levels behind in a few subjects.
 
Dutton says legislators should also assess the quality of the services provided for students with disabilities, to make meaningful change. “We have to clear up this whole thing, otherwise it will just keep going in a revolving door that goes around and around, without someone sitting down and saying, ‘Wait a minute. None of this makes sense until we do something about the quality,'" he says.
Improving the quality of special education means training teachers and administrators to educate students with disabilities in general education classrooms, says Christine Broughal, an Austin-based special education attorney at Enabled Advocacy.
“What we have to deal with now is the fact that there is most likely going to be an influx of special-needs children, and how are we going to meet their needs?” Broughal says.

In Texas, she says, most students with disabilities spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms. “They’re receiving all of their content and instruction from general ed teachers who have no training in how to teach them,” she says.
 
Senate Bill 529 would require educators to be certified in special education techniques, including basic knowledge of federal law on how to serve students with disabilities and practices to properly evaluate which students need more support.
 

SIDEBAR

Get Involved

The Arc North Texas has been empowering and supporting North Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1951. Work the weekday Adventure Camp for kiddos age 5 and older in Irving, June through August; provide clerical help, data entry and tech support weekdays throughout the year in the Dallas headquarters; or participate in or volunteer at the March for Respect walk on March 25. Start by filling out an online application.
Dallas, 214/634-9810

The Arc Tarrant County include chaperoning a monthly dance for adults with special needs or bowling with them once a week. Fill out the volunteer form online to get started.
Fort Worth, 817/877-1474; arcgtc.org
Haltom City, 817/834-7700; arcnetc.org

Research proves that students with disabilities learn best when receiving special education services and supports in settings with their typical peers. Disability Rights Texas (DRT) makes free appropriate public education a priority for kids with special needs by making sure students receive necessary evaluations and assistive technology at school. Unless you’re an attorney or law clerk wanting to offer pro-bono services, you can serve on the board of directors or help with the very necessary administrative duties — stuffing envelopes for mass mailings, producing newsletters and so much more.
Dallas, 214/630-0916

Texans Care For Children created a list of recommendations to address the state’s 2017 children’s policy priorities. No. 1 on that list includes protecting services for children with disabilities even as Texas significantly cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates for disabled children’s therapy services. Urge state legislators to stop the rate cuts and commit to supporting Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) by selecting pre-populated talking points and sending emails to your representatives through Texans Care for Children’s Action Center.
Austin, 512/473-2274

There are several ways you can help Arc Greater Mid Cities, a nonprofit dedicated to giving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities more opportunities. Educate others on Arc Greater Mid Cities mission; volunteer at or organize conferences, film screenings, social events and trainings; offer administrative assistance by making copies and inputting data; develop the newsletter; or advocate on behalf of those with special needs. Other opportunities through

SIDEBAR

Now Hear This

Facebook shares and likes and Twitter retweets can’t create change. Calling your representatives on the phone (or emailing them can). Calling is the most effective way to have your voice heard (aside from making an in-person visit). Calls are tallied by staffers and the count is given to your representatives, informing them how strongly their constituents feel about an issue. So reach out now. (Type your address into fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx to find out who represents you.)
SIDEBAR

An Easy Guide to Contacting Your Rep

Find your reps here

Telephone calls will be taken by a representative’s aide, or you may have to leave a message. After identifying yourself, and providing your phone number, say that you’re a constituent from District ____, ZIP code ____ and that you support or oppose Senate Bill ____ or House Bill ____ (the aide keeps tallies). State the reasons for your support or opposition, then thank your representative for their work.

If you prefer to email, state your purpose for writing in the first paragraph, giving your stance on the Senate or House bill number, and include examples to support your position.

It goes without saying, you should always be courteous and polite, and only address one issue in each phone call or letter. 


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