TEA policy results in more than one child left behind

Amy Sharp

In December 2016, a young student sat nervously before a panel of federal officials in Austin. The room was packed with parents, teachers and camera crews. But all fell silent when he told his story. With great composure, he recalled days when he didn’t want to live anymore. He was bullied for his differences and excluded. Devastated, he considered suicide. At the time, he was only 10-years-old.

Special education services are designed to help students just like this one. Unfortunately, a state agency policy imposed on Texas schools capped special education enrollment for over a decade. He, like thousands of others, didn’t make the cut.

After years of struggle, federal officials are finally giving that boy the validation he deserves.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released its months-long investigation of the Texas special education system. Officials revealed to the public what the disability community always knew — the Texas Education Agency’s de facto cap on special education was illegal. Now, TEA must fix
its mistakes.

In the report, the Department handed down clear and direct corrective actions. Our state’s education leaders must find students who were denied services in the past, bolster services for students today and revamp identification procedures moving forward.

Accomplishing these tasks will be challenging. Still, the investigation presents an opportunity to reorient TEA toward a culture of identification, rather than cost cutting. Through its corrective action plan, TEA can rebuild its public education system, where students with disabilities have access to protections available nowhere else.

But TEA cannot and should not rebuild itself on its own.

For decades, TEA has tinkered with special education issues behind closed doors. Leaders viewed public input as a problem, not a solution. Their choices consistently showed not only a lack of regard for federal law, but also a lack of respect for the Texans they are supposed to serve. Just like the cap, these attitudes must be left behind.

It’s time to change course. The Department’s directives do not mandate public input, but the TEA commissioner released an initial draft of the corrective action plan on Jan. 18 and comments on this plan will be accepted through Feb. 18. The final plan will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in mid-April 2018. The plan drafted by TEA includes providing resources to families, strengthening the continuing education for special educators, identifying the students who were denied services and providing compensatory services and increasing oversight, staff and resources for special education efforts in Texas.

Professionals and parents alike have solutions to contribute. Ideas range from simple information-sharing updates to more complex cultural shifts in Texas schools. They include steps to proactively incentivize inclusive services rather than reactively clean up scandals. Most importantly, the community’s suggestions outline ways to open up communication, initiate collaborative relationships and prioritize children first.

When TEA works in isolation, students with disabilities ultimately pay the price. The class of denied students dating back to 2004 is living proof. Fixing the general and special education systems for students with disabilities will take honest conversations and hard work. The disability community is up for the task. We just need a meaningful seat at the table.

Amy Sharp is the Director of the Texas Center for Disability Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.