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The State of Our Children: Special Education

 The status quo: The current system continues to fail thousands of kids with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental illness and other special needs.

The U.S. Department of Education officials proceed with their investigation into whether the state purposely excluded students from receiving special education services (thanks to the exposé by the Houston Chronicle). They are collecting information on whether the Texas Education Agency (TEA) violated federal law in the way it evaluated students for special education by capping special education services at a low rate of 8.5 percent and purposely excluding eligible students.

Texas actually serves the smallest share of special education students. The national average is 13 percent.
Why would they do this? The state has reportedly saved billions of dollars by denying services to tens of thousands of children, according to the Houston Chronicle.
TEA officials have repeatedly denied capping special education services, saying school districts may have misunderstood the 8.5 percent rate as an absolute maximum for the rate of students served.
All Texas schools misunderstood this? Really?

Consider this
With increased federal attention on the low percentage of Texas students receiving special education services, the state is poised to ensure the number of students receiving such services will increase over the next year. And disability rights advocates are hoping to go even further, aiming to improve the overall quality of those services. 
Those advocates want school officials to reduce the rates at which black students are labeled as learning disabled — experts say that student group has been overrepresented for decades in special ed. They also want to increase the rate of English-language learners, whom educators can often mistake for having language challenges rather than disabilities.

Several legislators have filed bills to prohibit the state from capping special education services at 8.5 percent. State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso is one of them. He says the Legislature should figure out how to "ensure every single special education student in this state gets the special education program that they deserve." His bill, Senate Bill 160, also says districts should continue to monitor the percentages of specific racial or ethnic groups receiving special education services, to ensure they are not overrepresented or underrepresented.
“The hope is that the kids who need the services will get the services. We don’t want it to mean that kids are funneled into services they don't need,” says Rachel Gandy, mental health policy fellow at Disability Rights Texas. She wants the Legislature to ensure students who have been denied special education services in the past get the support they need. 
State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, says he worries Texas schools could overidentify even more students for special education if school districts focus on increasing their special ed student rates. As a legislator in the 90s, he heard from parents of black and Hispanic students who had been labeled learning disabled just because they were grade levels behind in a few subjects.
Dutton says legislators should also assess the quality of the services provided for students with disabilities, to make meaningful change. “We have to clear up this whole thing, otherwise it will just keep going in a revolving door that goes around and around, without someone sitting down and saying, ‘Wait a minute. None of this makes sense until we do something about the quality,'" he says.
Improving the quality of special education means training teachers and administrators to educate students with disabilities in general education classrooms, says Christine Broughal, an Austin-based special education attorney at Enabled Advocacy.
“What we have to deal with now is the fact that there is most likely going to be an influx of special-needs children, and how are we going to meet their needs?” Broughal says.

In Texas, she says, most students with disabilities spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms. “They’re receiving all of their content and instruction from general ed teachers who have no training in how to teach them,” she says.
Senate Bill 529 would require educators to be certified in special education techniques, including basic knowledge of federal law on how to serve students with disabilities and practices to properly evaluate which students need more support.