Texas Perspectives

Federal Findings on Special Education in Texas Should be a Call to Change

Special Education
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Findings just released by the U.S. Department of Education officially confirm that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) failed to comply with federal law for more than a decade by excluding an unknown number of students with disabilities from receiving special education services.

Although Gov. Greg Abbott issued an immediate letter to the TEA demanding that it take action, the case highlights the critical need for attention to disability rights in our state. In other words, it must be a call to action.

The story of the TEA scandal broke in 2016. Beginning in 2004, the TEA capped the number of Texas students receiving special education services at 8.5 percent, well below the national average of approximately 13 percent. Soon, the state had the lowest rate of students receiving special education in the country. Extensive media coverage of the scandal and its fallout for families generated widespread national attention and, ultimately, a federal investigation. 

The TEA’s special education cap will have a lasting impact on an untold number of students, perhaps as many as 250,000. But issues of disability rights, inclusion and access in Texas go far beyond this single example. The failure to ensure the needs of Texans with disabilities is an ongoing and pervasive problem that demands attention. 

Ultimately, the TEA’s special education cap is best understood as part of a broader failure to guarantee the rights of Texans with disabilities. The shameful truth is that Texas consistently ranks near the bottom of all states in disability inclusion. This lack of resources affects individuals with disabilities of all ages, albeit in different ways. Hundreds of thousands are on waiting lists to receive key services. 

In contrast, at least 18 other states have only minor waiting lists, enabling people to access services without such lengthy delays. There is also an emerging shortage of home care attendants, who can provide services that make independent living a reality, due to the incredibly low wages they receive. Guaranteed a minimum of only $8 per hour in 2016, these workers provide critical skills that keep adults with disabilities out of institutional settings, yet they make less than many employees in retail or fast food. 

Then, there is the question of institutionalization. Texas continues to house more people in large state-run institutions than any other state, despite the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead v. L.C. ruling that people with disabilities had the right to services that were community-based, not in segregated institutions.

In Texas, troubling reports continue to emerge from many of the 13 remaining State Supported Living Centers, despite an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009 that the state would improve conditions. 

This is all the more shameful given the success of efforts in other states to ensure that adults with disabilities — including those with significant support needs — could reside in their home communities rather than in institutions.

The most recent data indicates that 14 states have no residential institutions for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and another nine states have only one. And, perhaps the ultimate rub is that the cost per person of providing care in a segregated institution far exceeds the costs involved in community-based services. 

The TEA scandal — and any possible solutions — must be approached within this broader context if we are to effect real and sustaining change on the ground. The TEA should commit itself to a meaningful overhaul of its special education practices.

It must work closely with districts and hold them accountable, ensuring that eligible students — regardless of their background or circumstances — are identified and receive the services guaranteed by federal law. And, moreover, the TEA must be held accountable for the neglect of countless Texas students between 2004 and 2016. 

Ensuring the fundamental rights of our neighbors and loved ones with disabilities must not be reduced to a partisan issue. When it comes to fundamental disability rights, the shortcomings in Texas go far beyond special education. Texans with disabilities and their allies deserve more state support and should not be silenced. As a state, we must do better.  

Elizabeth Lewis is the project lead for the Texas Center for Disability Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Waco Tribune Herald

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.