The future they could have had: Special education plan comes too late for some students

FILE - Elementary students in a classroom. (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Elementary students in a classroom. (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A report from the U.S. Department of Education says the state is breaking federal law by keeping children with disabilities from getting the help they need.  Governor Greg Abbott ordered Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath to fix the problem. The Governor gave Morath seven days to come up with a plan.

“Well, absolutely it’s vindication, but at the same time it’s incredibly sad,” Maggie Suter said during an interview on KXAN’s State of Texas political program. Suter is the mother of four boys, two with disabilities. She’s also a member the advocacy group Texans for Special Education Reform. Suter said the DOE report vindicates years’ worth of work to push for change in Texas, but it comes too late for some people.

“It’s hard not to think about those 200,000 kids who didn’t get the services they need and who are adults now,” Suter said. “It’s hard to think about the future they could have had.”

The report found that special education enrollment in Texas fell by 32,000 students since 2004.  During that same period, overall enrollment rose by nearly 1-million students. The drop in enrollment came after the Texas Education Agency put policies in place that discouraged school districts from placing students in special education classes. Those classes carry a higher cost.

Governor Abbott’s order to the TEA likely means that more Texas students will receive special education services. But, Suter says there are still concerns about the quality of those services. “There’s got to be a lot more teacher training that happens, professional development that happens,” Suter said.

“It’s important to note that the Legislature did have a time that they could have done something more about this,” explained Aliyya Swaby, education reporter for the Texas Tribune. Several bills were filed, but failed to pass during the last year’s regular session. Lawmakers will likely face the issue again when they return to the Capitol.

“It remains to be seen what can be done before a future legislative session,” Swaby explained. “What is in the realm of what the education agency can do and then later what is in the legislature’s hands.”

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