To exclude a child from getting the education they need, especially a child who has special needs, is an unconscionable act and the State of Texas should be ashamed of its unfair treatment of these children and their families, which was brought out in a federal report last week.

The scathing report, issued Thursday by regulators from the U.S. Department of Education, found the Texas Education Agency in violation of federal laws by “capping” the number of special needs students in public and charter school districts to well below the national average, and for penalizing school districts for exceeding the benchmark. This unfair treatment of students was statewide from 2004 to 2017, including the Rio Grande Valley.

The report followed an extensive 15-month statewide review of how districts treat special-needs children and their families. Multiple field hearings were held, including one in Edinburg on Dec. 13, 2016, where local advocates told horrific tales of exclusion of children, and undertrained teachers and counselors who are not equipped to handle these students at local public and charter schools. They also gave examples of local districts failing to screen children suspected of having a learning disability, which is what the federal report also found.

Evelyn Cano, parent of an autistic 9-year-old son in PSJA ISD and a parental advocate affiliated with Capable Kids Foundation, testified at the hearing to “a lack of training for educators and delay in evaluations,” she told us on Friday.

Cano says by delaying proper assessments of these children, districts save money and resources that are required under federal law for schools to educate any student with a diagnosis under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is tailored to their needs.

“The teachers were seeing the need, but the diagnosticians and counselors were saying ‘why are you sending me so many? I have too many (to assess,)’” Cano told us.

Federal law is quite clear that assessments must be made in a timely manner after requested by a parent or teacher, and must be done by licensed diagnosticians or a licensed specialist in school psychology (LSSP.) Not providing these services is shameful and reprehensible and we commend local advocates and federal officials for taking on and participating in this in-depth probe, which began after a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle alleging TEA had denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities across the state.

We also commend Gov. Greg Abbott for his quick response to the report by sending a strong letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath that same day accusing the agency of “dereliction of duty” and “the failure to hold districts accountable … to adequately address the needs of our most vulnerable students.”

Abott ordered TEA to come up with an immediate “corrective plan” by Jan. 18. And we expect the agency to provide it on time, in depth and to the media (IE public).

However, we agree with concerns raised by Christine Broughal, who runs Enabled Advocacy, of Austin, who questions how an agency accused of wrongdoing can properly “police” itself and change problems that are deep-rooted and systematic?

“Asking the people who made the problem in the first place is a little concerning. We have a trust issue with TEA and they’re going to have to do a lot to fix that,” Broughal told us.

Understood. We only hope Gov. Abbott and TEA understand that. And if not, we expect federal officials to keep digging and unearthing any and all problems that must be fixed for our kids.

The federal report also cited a lack of training of school staff to handle developmental issues. So we fully expect training to be amped up statewide, as well as an exact timetable of when assessments will be made after requested.

We also call upon TEA and local school districts to provide interpreters for families, such as many in the Rio Grande Valley that do not speak English, and to provide more education and help for families on their legal rights.

High praise for organizations like the Capable Kids Foundation, which provides free advocacy for families in the RGV. And we encourage more healthcare businesses to step up and support these causes and offer their help to families, which is so obviously needed.

We agree with Cano’s assessment: “Getting something on a federal level will spark some changes. … TEA is now aware that, as parents, we know what’s happening. So I think they’re going to be on their best behavior. Will there be huge changes? No. But there will be small changes,” she said.

That is the least our state can do for these families and children.

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