EDITORIAL: TEA must fix special education in Texas quickly

A month ago we praised Gov. Greg Abbott for berating Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and for ordering that Morath’s agency present a plan to fix errors found by federal education regulators that showed Texas was violating federal disability laws with its treatment of special education students.

In response, the Texas Education Agency fairly quickly issued a draft report, admitting in it how the agency has failed children with special needs and their families, and laying out long term solutions.

The proposed solutions, however, are quite long term, expensive and appear to offer no immediate help for at least a year. Nor does the plan address how local districts are to resolve these critical issues that have affected hundreds of thousands of students and families going back to 2004.

According to TEA’s initial draft of its “Corrective Action Plan,” released Jan. 18, over $84.4 million is proposed to be spent over the next five years to fix special education within Texas. That includes $25 million put into a compensatory services fund “for students who are found to have needed services and did not get them.”

But that begs the question whether long term injustices inflicted upon special education students and their families going back 14 years can be quantified. And, if so, is $25 million enough? What will be the process for distributing funds and how will they go about locating students who have already graduated?

As Esmer Leal, executive director of Capable Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization that represents families with disabilities in the Rio Grande Valley told us: “It’s a slap in the face. You can’t put a number on it. You’ve already lost. Many of these kids are already out of the system. What does that do for them now? Throwing money and bodies at it is not going to solve the underlying problems.”

TEA has proposed hiring more statewide monitors — 25, up from the current 11 full-time employees who oversee more than 500,000 students in various stages of the special education identification or services process. It also wants to create a 16-member “Special Education Escalation Team in the Office of Academics,” which by February 2019 is to begin on-site visits to various school campuses “with the most clear or self-reported gap between students who are identified with special needs and those who should have been previously identified.” In other words: The schools identified as having the most trouble helping special education students.

But in the meantime, during this next year, what happens?

And once these agents identify the most troublesome campuses, what will be done at the local level and who will pay for it? Or will this become another unfunded mandate that cash-strapped local school districts can’t carry out?

The TEA report suggests spending $15 million statewide for professional development for educators, but the plan does not specify whether it will be offered to local districts in their communities, to cut down on districts having to pay for travel costs and to better reach teachers and administrators, as it should be.

The report also touches upon the need for Spanish language resources, but does not stress the need for bilingual outreach, which is extremely necessary in the Rio Grande Valley.

We certainly hope TEA is not just trying to cover its tracks by offering up new departments and millions of dollars in hires and “professional development” without getting to the core issues that federal regulators found: And that is that Texas schools are not properly screening or quickly identifying children suspected of having learning disabilities, and educators are not properly writing individualized education plans (IEP) tailored to meet each child’s unique set of learning needs.

The good news is that this is only a draft report — not the final action plan. We still have the opportunity to weigh in and help TEA find solutions by taking a survey on the agency’s website and giving our feedback. The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and is open through midnight Feb. 18 (that’s Sunday) at:

tea.texas.gov/TexasSPED.

We also hope that more residents will signup to participate in “stakeholder” meetings that TEA is holding throughout the state, like one held at PSJA ISD in Pharr on Wednesday afternoon.

Evelyn Cano, parent of a 9-year-old with autism and a member of Capable Kids, attended the Wednesday meeting and tells us that there were only 25 “parent slots” for the meeting, which was offered through the Region I Education Center. And parents were collectively asked to give their feedback, as a group, by typing on a computer.

She said the format was awkward and forced the group to condense their suggestions. We agree it would have been better to allow everyone to individually give their own feedback.

We hope TEA officials will listen to our feedback on the way they collect feedback. And we encourage residents to give their feedback by taking the TEA survey.

For as this convoluted sentence points out, your voice is needed to help this agency cut through the bureaucracy and get to the heart of this serious problem so that all children in our state receive the education that, by law, they should.

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