Over the past four weeks, I have discussed the September 11, 2016, Houston Chronicle report (and the follow-up article October 23) regarding an investigation newspaper staff conducted about accusations that the Texas Education Agency placed a cap (8.5 percent) on the percentage of students to whom Texas school districts could provide special education services without being penalized. I have also covered a subsequent letter sent to TEA by Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and TEA’s response, written by Penny Schwinn, Texas Education Agency's deputy commissioner of academics.
As part of their investigation into the validity of the Chronicle’s claims, the U.S. Department of Education decided to conduct public meetings in five Texas cities the week of December 12 (2016). TEA officials would join the U.S. DoED, officials announced. Five sites were selected: Houston, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, and Edinburg. I attended the Edinburg session, which was held at Region One Education Service Center Tuesday, December 13.
I felt disappointed when I arrived, approximately 30 minutes before the meeting was to begin. The parking lot was nearly empty. ‘Apathy,’ I thought. About 15 minutes later, more people began arriving. Although I would have loved to have seen even more people speaking up on such an important topic, it was a respectable turn-out.
After the DoED and TEA officials were introduced and a few hearing procedures were provided to the audience, public testimony began. (When we arrived, we were asked if we wished to provide public testimony. Those who said yes were given numbers and were called according to those numbers.) Here are a few of the comments I heard in the 75 minutes I was there:
1. First to give testimony was a couple who drove to Edinburg from Alice for the hearing. The father is a school administrator in the district. The couple has a son diagnosed with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder). According to the father, their son began receiving special ed. services in second grade and was suddenly dismissed this school year. Now in sixth grade, he still needs special ed. services and should not have been dismissed, his father said. The parents are seeking an independent evaluation, but it has not yet been provided. “Whether they want to admit it or not, that 8.5 percent indicator (referring to the Chronicle’s report) IS a cap,” the father told officials at the hearing. “I don’t care what anyone says!”
2. A teacher in a self-contained elementary classroom testified about the lack of funding available for teachers to purchase items they need to implement students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), which are mandatory for special ed. students. This teacher had previously worked as a general ed. teacher for 16 years, and she also testified that teachers were often told, when recommending students for special ed. evaluation, “They don’t qualify (for special ed.). They’re just slow learners.”
3. A parent with two children receiving special ed. services: “We need to know what our rights are as parents.” “He (referring to her son who is a sophomore in high school) has two-and-a-half years left, and I don’t see him graduating with the tools he needs. He has so many holes in his education.”
4. A parent with a 10-year-old son with Down syndrome: The teacher her son had for five years resigned the Friday before this public hearing, and parents were not notified.
5. Parent of a child on the autism spectrum who is also an active Valley special ed. advocate: “Teachers need a lot of training when it comes to IEPs.” She said she sees IEPs with no measurable goals (a requirement), items copied and pasted from previous years, etc. She also told the federal and state officials at the meeting, “The schools are not meeting their needs, and you need to change that….we need YOUR help! I have to homeschool my son because YOUR schools let him down!”
6. Parent of twin girls enrolled in a Valley elementary school: The school has no dyslexia specialist and no therapist. She said first, her daughters’ primary instruction is computer-based rather than direct instruction, and second, it is overseen by a paraprofessional rather than a trained special education teacher.
7. Parent of three-year-old twins: She commended the Chronicle for their investigation and said, “It was long overdue.” She then told the DoED officials, “Now YOU should hold the state liable.” She boldly told them one of her twins is not being provided all of the services the district is required to provide.
While I was there, the overriding themes were failure to provide services special ed. students are entitled to receive, the lack of a quality education for special ed. students, limited funding for teachers, lack of oversight/training by and for educators, and extreme, heartfelt frustration on the part of parents.
In the coming weeks, I will follow up on this, discussing TEA’s plans to truly address this issue and what state and local advocacy/parent groups are doing about it. This is, indeed, long overdue.
Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.