Advocates are claiming victory after they said the Texas Education Agency has pledged to repeal a clause that puts a de-facto enrollment 'cap' on special needs kids at Texas school districts.
Two advocacy groups -- Disability Rights Texas and Coalition of Texans with Disabilities -- held a press conference Monday morning at the Capitol. Despite the TEA's pledge to remove the "special education representation indicator," both groups have also enacted the help of legislators to take action on the issue.
In a series of coordinated bills, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, Rep. Dan Huberty, Sen. Jose Menendez and Rep. Gene Wu filed legislation to address the issue.
"I fully support all the legislation moving forward to make sure this doesn't happen again. But I'm still very concerned about looking backwards to why this happened in the first place. I would ask that the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House form committees to look at (a) joint investigation to figure out how a quarter of a million Texas schoolchildren were wrongfully and legally discriminated against. We need to know. We need to know whose idea was this, who approved it, who knew - but didn't say anything," said Wu.
"While it’s difficult to have legislative fix to change the culture, we are going to change the culture in identifying this. We intend on passing this bill even though they removed the indicator, because we don’t want this to ever happen again. We don’t want to have a situation where somebody’s not being identified or being provided the services that they deserve," added Huberty.
According to a press release distributed by Disability Rights Texas, if passed,the legislation would 'eliminate the cap by adding a new section to the Texas Education Code', and "uphold the TEA"s ability to collect data that is required to evaluate the disproportionality in SPED programs by racial/ethnic group and disability category."
Advocates pointed to lower enrollment rates amongst students - with falling rates since the apparent policy was passed in 2004. The national average for US students enrolled in special education courses is 13%; in Texas, it's 8.5%. Nationally, the average has fallen .8% since the 2004-2005 school year; in Texas, it's dropped 3.2% over the same time period.
Maria Martinez said she was forced to drop out of high school due to opportunities that should have been provided to her - but were not.
"I don’t ask for sympathy, I ask that you do something. Take action. I ask that you support bills that protect the right for an education for students with disabilities," Martinez pleaded.
The apparent controversial practice has drawn statewide attention after it was exposed in a series of articles by the Houston Chronicle. The series found that Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education. The alleged cap has drawn condemnation from both sides. Special needs education advocates are angry over its alleged implementation and the TEA denied that the cap exists. The TEA said that in 2016, more than half of its districts had greater than 8.5 percent of its students enrolled in special education.
Disability Rights Texas said they discovered the clause which placed an 8.5 percent cap on special needs education students in districts in 2014. Working alongside the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Disability Rights Texas reached out to the TEA commissioner in January of 2017 and threatened legal action if the agency did not fix the cap.
Last month, the agency pledged to visit a dozen Texas school districts -- including Austin, Leander and Del Valle -- to learn more about the TEA's enrollment process.
KVUE found that Austin ISD officials said their special education enrollment is at 10.5 percent. Leander ISD sits at 10.5 percent as well and Del Valle comes in at 12 percent.
The TEA has denied the existence of a cap, stating that in 2016, more than half its' districts had more than 8.5% of their students enrolled in special needs education courses.
Parents of special needs children said it has put them in a difficult position.