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Texas has a plan to fix special education. Now what?

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by Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Emily Albracht for The Texas Tribune

Last week, the Texas Education Agency announced its plans to spend $212 million over the next five years to fix special education in public schools. But what can the state do to help the students it excluded from special education over the past decade?

The TEA’s announcement comes two years after a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that school districts had used an arbitrary state benchmark to deny students special education services. As a result, only 8.5 percent of students qualified for specialized instruction. The TEA has repeatedly denied allegations that it deliberately capped services.

Still, the U.S. Department of Education required that the state make significant changes to address deficiencies identified after a 15-month probe. With special education under the microscope, the issue has become a big focus for some political candidates and state lawmakers this year. It’s also one of the many issues members of This Is Your Texas wrestled with in a month-long discussion on education policy. So we asked members of our Facebook group what questions they have about special education services in Texas.

To answer those queries, The Texas Tribune turned to Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for Texans with disabilities. Policy specialist Steven Aleman explained the difference between the two different programs that serve students with disabilities in Texas public schools — one for special education and another known as “Section 504” — and weighed in on TEA’s proposed plan to address systemic issues with special education policy.

Many of the questions below are crowdsourced from members of the group. The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.

What does a student receive with a 504 plan versus special education?

Steven Aleman: Generally speaking, 504 plans are for a student with a disability and they address accommodations and other specialized needs that are separate from actual instructional needs. If that student also requires instructional needs, then they would probably fall more into the special education plan.

There’s also a difference with regards to money. In short, there are no funds connected to Section 504 plans at the federal or state level. Accomodations identified under a 504 plan are the responsibility of that local school district or charter school.

If a student with dyslexia needs specialized instruction then that might be considered special education because we’re adapting the instruction to the student.

The TEA announced last week that it plans to spend $212 million over the next five years in an attempt to fix systemic problems with special education in Texas schools. How will this plan change things and what would that mean for the availability of services?

Aleman: We’re optimistic the strategic plan will really launch new initiatives for students with disabilities. The budget for that strategic plan, however, is really for activities — not for direct services.

The hope is that the plan — and the federal money they’re going to set aside for the plan — will really leverage change by increasing teacher awareness of current duties and current practices, helping prepare the next generation of educators and making sure that the state has an infrastructure to monitor and track what school districts are doing for students with disabilities.

[But the success of the plan] really depends, ultimately, on the state adding its own resources to ensure that these activities at the state level translate to actual personnel in classrooms helping students with disabilities learn and reach the full benefit of public education in Texas.

What should parents be asking their school officials with these changes coming about?

Aleman: If a parent feels their child might have a disability and a need for special education, then they need to ask the school district what they’re doing to ensure compliance with Child Find [a federal policy requiring schools and school districts to identify children under 21 with disabilities and their possible need for special education] and what the school district is doing to ensure quality educational outcomes.

How can parents go about getting their kids’ services?

Aleman: Both 504 plans and special education use Child Find. Child Find is the duty of the school district to not wait for the parents to ask for help. If a child seems to show signs of needing assistance in some fashion, whether accommodations or specialized instruction, the school district has the duty to step forward and ask parents for consent to start doing an initial evaluation.

No services can be provided under either law and no plan can be written before an evaluation is done. And that evaluation requires parental consent. The first step, really, is for someone at the school to recognize there’s something happening, to alert the appropriate leadership in that district or charter school and then notify the parents that the school district is wanting to do some evaluation. Of course, the parent can also step forward and say that they would like to have their child evaluated and that they give their consent for those evaluations.

Do the federal laws around 504 and special education only apply to public school students?

Aleman: Section 504 only applies to recipients of federal assistance. That’s more or less going to be school districts and open-enrollment charter schools. Likewise, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act technically only applies to school districts and charter schools that apply for that federal money. So essentially, that’s all public schools.

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