“TEXAS CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS DESERVE EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY, NOT MORE INJUSTICE”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas
“Texas Children with Special Needs Deserve Educational Opportunity, Not More Injustice”
October 25, 2016
As of October 3, 2016 the Texas Education Agency has 30 days to respond to an order by the U.S. Department of Education to fix its terribly broken system that serves special needs children.
Now Texas must act!
Because the arbitrary cap limiting the number of special needs students enrolled in a school district set and enforced by TEA clearly violated both the letter and spirit of the IDEA Act, on September 12, 2016, I wrote Education Secretary John King to demand that the U.S. Department of Education “review, investigate, and take immediate and appropriate action to remedy the injury currently being suffered at least 250,000 special needs school children resulting from the systematic and intentional actions of the Texas state government to deprive these students of the rights guaranteed them by the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Act).”
“According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Association of Special Education Teachers, inclusion for both special needs students with their regular education peers has positive and statistically significant impacts:
Students with Disabilities uniformly reported being highly motivated and fulfilled, and reported being focused and successful both academically and socially. Students with Disabilities reported better social and learning environments in inclusive settings furthering their motivation to learn and to work harder. Included Students with Disabilities reported that their learning proficiency increased with the Regular Ed Students along side them.
Hubert Humphrey once said that the “moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” By this measure, the Texas state government has been failing the moral test for more than a decade when it comes to fair treatment of special needs students.
As documented in the Houston Chronicle’s comprehensive investigation and exposé, “Denied: How Texas Keeps Tens Of Thousands Of Children Out Of Special Education,” the Texas Education Agency (TEA) was responsible for nearly a quarter million special needs students in Texas being denied access to the free public education guaranteed them by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Act).
Passed in 1990, the IDEA Act provides federal funding and guarantees children with special needs a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Among other things, the IDEA Act mandates that all children with an identified disability receive special education and related services to address their individual needs.
Across the nation, approximately 13% of school children receive the special education benefits guaranteed by the IDEA Act. In Texas, however, the comparable figure is 8.5%, by far the lowest of any state in the nation. If the level of service provided by the State of Texas even barely met the national average, an additional 250,000 special need students would be receiving the educational opportunity they desperately need and deserve.
Instead, the Texas Education Agency made a conscious decision to artificially cap the number of special needs students it would support at 8.5 percent and enforced that decision by penalizing school districts that exceeded this 8.5% cap with a negative adjustment to rating used to evaluate the school district performance.
As I document in my letter to Education Secretary King, “the real-world consequence of this deplorable decision is that vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, are being denied to approximately 250,000 Texas children.” When a school district, for example, ignores a mother’s request for a special education evaluation, the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on her child who may be forced to repeat the second and third grade is incalculable and may be irreparable.
The goal may have been to keep students who were special needs out of classrooms out of the misguided belief that these children might not perform as well as others. The TEA’s arbitrary ceiling severely restricts the number of children able to receive education services, who needed them in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
My advice to TEA is not to waste time trying to defend the indefensible; the arbitrary 8.5 cap cannot be justified in 30 days or 300 days because it is wrong legally and morally and an example of invidious discrimination against the most vulnerable members of society. Instead, Texas state officials should embrace a policy that makes amends for the legal injuries already sustained by Texas special needs students and commit to making Texas the standard for the nation when it comes to providing the best and highest quality services for special needs children.
In addition to discontinuing the 8.5% cap on special needs student enrollment, a good place to start is for Texas to accept the federal funds, and the resulting economic growth, that comes with expanding the Texas Medicaid program to include low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act. Not only will this provide needed access to health services to children with autism and other disabilities, it will also save the lives of an estimated 5,700 adults and 2,700 children every year. And increased revenues flowing from the increase in economic activity, estimated to be $67.9 billion over ten years, will provide the state with the funds needed to finance the most innovative and effective special education programs in the nation.
In Texas, we face a moral test: do we treat our most vulnerable citizens with dignity, compassion, and provide them the opportunity to reach their fullest potential? I say, yes we can and yes we must. Texas must honor its obligation to its special needs children by forever discontinuing arbitrary caps on special education enrollment, develop and implement the best and most innovative special education programs in the nation, and expand the Medicaid program to take advantage of what virtually every economist and policy expert calls the deal of a lifetime.
Texas and America’s children deserve no less; frankly they deserve everything that will give them the best chance to succeed. The rights guaranteed to special needs children by the IDEA Act are as noble and worthy of protection as any of the other landmark civil rights law we rightly cherish and revere.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee is a Democrat from Texas’s 18th Congressional District. She is a senior member of the House Committees on Judiciary and Homeland Security and is Ranking Member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.