Ending special education caps

Dear friend:

We have less than two weeks left in the 85th Regular Session, and bills are either passing the Legislature or dying. In the House in particular, over 200 bills died to parliamentary procedures taken by a handful of members regardless of the merit of those bills.

I do have some good news to report. Last week, the Texas Legislature sent my SB 160 to the Governor for his approval. The bill eliminates the Texas Education Agency’s “target” on special education enrollment. As shown through reporting by the Houston Chronicle, and by the testimony of Texas parents who had difficulty accessing the education to which their children were entitled, this so-called “target” effectively acted as a cap.

The bill addresses a TEA-adopted monitoring policy that set an arbitrary 8.5 percent target for children receiving special education services in Texas public schools. Numerous parents, advocates, and school districts say the policy effectively served as a cap that drastically lowered the number of students receiving services for a variety of needs, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and epilepsy.

When the cap was implemented in 2004, Texas was comparable to the national special education enrollment average at about 12 percent. But by 2015, Texas reached TEA’s 8.5 percent target, the lowest special education enrollment in the nation.

Now, the cap subjects Texas to ongoing scrutiny from the U.S. Dept. of Education. Following a series of listening sessions attended by hundreds of people across Texas, DOE launched an investigation of 12 school districts. Parent advocates threatened to sue the state, and in March the TEA confirmed that it would eliminate the cap immediately.

Senate Bill 160 prohibits TEA from adopting a performance indicator that solely measures a school district’s total number or percentage of enrolled students that receive special education services. The bill makes clear, however, that TEA is not impaired in its requirements under federal law to monitor for disproportionality.

Passage of SB 160 ensures that children receive the services to which they are legally entitled. Parents must have a place at the table when schools design appropriate accommodations, and they have a right to have their child evaluated for special education services.

Another bill to address issues related to educating children with disabilities, SB 436, passed the Senate Tuesday, and has gone to the House. SB 436 improves the Texas Special Education Continuous Advisory Committee (SECAC) by promoting more public participation. SECAC is the federally-mandated public body that provides guidance to TEA regarding special education services.

Special education advocates complain that the committee discourages public input at meetings, a view supported by TEA’s 2015 Sunset Review. Under SB 436, the committee must develop a public participation policy, and must post on its website contact information, meeting notices, and minutes. The committee and TEA will submit a report with recommended changes to state law and agency rule.

Other bills sent to the Governor

We have a handful of other bills that have passed both chambers and will be sent to the Governor, including SB 617, SB 1246, HB 1020, HB 1495, HB 1790, and HB 1791. We have another thirty or so bills that are in the final stages in each chamber, and we hope to get across the finish line in the next week.

Yet another anti-immigrant bill

In the Texas Legislature, we learn to take the good with the bad. There’s too much of the latter this session, especially when it comes to immigrants. I’ve previously written about SB 4, a bill that puts Texas at the forefront of discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment that we had mostly avoided until now. My community, I’m proud to say, is taking a leading role in fighting back.

Last week, the Senate passed SB 1018, which would rubber stamp imprisoning immigrant mothers and their children in federal detention centers operated by the for-profit prison corporations, CCA and GEO Group. SB 1018 benefits the two for-profit prison corporations by legitimizing their operations in Texas at the expense of mothers and children who seek nothing more than to escape violence at a level that is inconceivable to most Americans.

The state’s existing standards for general residential operations (GROs) are the result of years of consideration and discussion by policymakers and child care experts. The state should not sanction or establish a process by which some children are held in substandard facilities that meet existing requirements of GROs only through exceptions or waivers. Nothing in this legislation would address reported issues of neglect and abuse arising from housing multiple individuals, including those who are not related and of the opposite sex, in one room.

This legislation essentially amounts to a “rubber stamp” of these detention facilities that operate in a manner that is contrary to the principles by which we seek to protect children in this state, we seek to protect children in this state, including what is in the best interests of the child. By passing this legislation, we are creating a second-class of children subject to a lower, disparate standard from those who are under the custody of the state, or are unaccompanied minors. This is unacceptable.

As always, I encourage your letters, emails, and phone calls. You can contact my office by clicking here.

Sincerely,

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