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Texas Students Are Still Fighting For Special Education

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2004, the Texas Education Agency put a cap, an arbitrary one, on how many children with disabilities could receive special education. For more than a decade, tens of thousands of children were denied services while the state saved billions of dollars. Last year, the Department of Education declared the policy illegal. But in a new investigation with the Houston Chronicle, Laura Isensee with Houston Public Media finds that Texas students are still fighting for special ed.

LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: Last school year, Christina Acevedo saw that her daughter Carolinda was struggling in seventh grade. There was one red flag after another. She'd stay up late doing homework, but then did poorly on state exams. Going to class also filled Carolinda with anxiety.

CAROLINDA: A lot of times, when I'd to be stressed and I try to take a test, I would end up, like, flunking it.

ISENSEE: Her mental health got so bad, she had to be hospitalized.

CHRISTINA ACEVEDO: I knew that she needed help.

ISENSEE: Acevedo asked school administrators to evaluate Carolinda for special education, but staff at the Brazosport Independent School District determined she didn't qualify, saying she wasn't affected at school and still got good grades.

ACEVEDO: But I feel like my requests for help were kind of falling on deaf ears and being delayed. And I was just sort of getting the runaround when, really, my daughter just needed the support.

ISENSEE: The school district, which is about 60 miles south of Houston, declined to comment for this story. Acevedo says she asked for a second opinion, but the district stalled until an attorney got involved - Shiloh Carter.

SHILOH CARTER: We were hoping that school districts would start to take this seriously.

ISENSEE: She's an attorney with Disability Rights Texas and has worked on several cases like Carolinda's. For years, the Texas Education Agency had a target - only 8.5% of all students could receive special ed. Federal officials said that cap was illegal and ordered Texas to fix the crisis in 2018. But Carter says the effects remain.

CARTER: We're seeing the same old same old. You know, this is what school districts were doing before when the cap was in place, kind of trying to deny eligibility and talk parents out of wanting special education services.

ISENSEE: In the last three years, Texas has barely increased the portion of children who receive services. Less than 10% of students qualify, below the national average of 14.

CARTER: And I don't think TEA has taken a stance and put pressure on these districts to do that. And so you still have kids falling through the cracks everywhere.

ISENSEE: State administrators say they won't catch up until June 2020, but maintain they've made progress. Deputy Education Commissioner Matt Montano points to more special ed, evaluations more funding and more communication with districts.

MATT MONTANO: If you think about Texas as being a large battleship, I do believe we've turned it. I do believe we've turned it in the right direction, and we're getting the momentum going in the right direction.

ISENSEE: He thinks the feds will agree, but the Chronicle found Texas hasn't met all the goals it's promised the Feds, like extra support to students who were previously denied access or more resources for parents to navigate the system. Educators and state leaders agree on at least one thing that's slowing progress - there aren't enough critical school staff to keep up with the demand for special ed testing.

JENNIFER BYRNE: It's a ton of pressure. I'm constantly thinking about it at night in the shower.

ISENSEE: Jennifer Byrne is a special ed administrator with the Fort Bend School District.

BYRNE: What else can I do? What can I try to find? And every year we've tried something different.

ISENSEE: They've tried a signing bonus, a retention bonus. But Byrne says they still have vacant positions. Statewide, the number of evaluations has jumped 56% in recent years, and it's even higher in her district. Advocates say Texas education officials aren't doing enough to ease the workforce shortage. And they say special ed won't truly be fixed until state lawmakers update how Texas pays for services. Steven Aleman is with Disability Rights Texas.

STEVEN ALEMAN: We have sort of put our finger in the dike and stopped the leak, but whether the whole dam is going to collapse is a potential problem we're going to have to deal with.

ISENSEE: It all leaves parents like Christina Acevedo discouraged - so much that, this year, she gave up trying to get special ed for her daughter in her public school. Carolinda enrolled in an online program instead.

ACEVEDO: I can't drop Carolinda off at the school and trust that she's going to be OK. If she were to have symptoms of her condition, it's possible that she could be punished for that.

ISENSEE: A feeling shared by many special needs parents in Texas who still have little faith in the state. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.