EDITORIAL: A comprehensive special education strategy for Texas

Last Thursday’s visit by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Rio Grande Valley to view the Texas National Guard troops who were recently dispatched here, overshadowed another event that happened that same day in Edinburg and deserved equal attention.

It was a public hearing held by the Texas Education Agency at the Region One Education Service Center on the state’s draft plan for revamping special education and making it fair and accessible for all Texas families.

It was one of only two public hearings held statewide, and we are heartened that education officials selected South Texas as one of the sites. The other was held Monday in Richardson, outside of Dallas.

Here, officials heard from special education advocates who questioned how TEA will address students and families with disabilities, and those suspected of having a disability, whose first language is not English. Namely many Spanish-language families here in the Rio Grande Valley feel left out and do not get information sent to them regarding their rights and what is available to help their children, Evelyn Cano, a board member of the Capable Kids Foundation and the mother of an autistic son, told us.

Cano was among those who testified on April 12 and was allotted three minutes to voice her concerns to TEA. But she said the plan is confusing and convoluted and she doesn’t believe many families — especially Spanish-language families — understand what the agency is fully proposing.

“We appreciated the hearing was here because there were only two in the entire state, but I feel our parents need a breakdown of the plan in order to better understand it and give feedback on it,” Cano said.

The latest draft, the Special Education Strategic Plan, was released March 19, ahead of the April 23 deadline ordered by the U.S. Department of Education, which found Texas’ special education programs do not adhere to federal laws.

A federal investigation found the state failed to educate thousands of students by not identifying disabilities in order to keep their numbers low.

The 42-page draft plan suggests ways to improve the identification process and add a monitoring system that would focus on student improvement, rather than meeting minimum expectations. It also offers way to help develop teachers and staff and better educate families and communities, as a whole.

But it lacks a way to pay for all this, something that several speakers brought up on April 12 during the Edinburg hearing. This, once again, places the onus on local school districts to pay for the costly identification process, and that could hinder students from being properly assessed.

“In this draft version of the plan there is not one state dollar allocated to the plan,” Roy Ballesteros with Disability Rights Texas testified. “State funding is critical for full and meaningful implementation for the strategic plan.”

That’s so true. We implore TEA to include these costs in its proposal for the next state budget, which the Texas Legislature will take up in 2019. And we also ask that TEA better notify communities and educators of future hearings they plan to have, because we’re told several local school districts were unaware of the April 12 hearing and many special education teachers would have liked to have attended.

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