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Gearing Up for the 86th Texas Legislative Session

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Welcome to 2019!! As an odd numbered year, that means the start of a new legislative session here in Texas. The regular 86th legislative session will officially begin on January 8th but legislators, including those newly elected in 2018, began pre-filing bills on November 12, 2018. As of today, 884 bills have already been filed. The deadline for filing bills is March 8 and the last day of the session is May 27th, 2019. If you would like a primer on the legislative process in Texas click here.

For quite a while now, the State of Texas has shirked both its state constitutional responsibility to fund the public schools and its federal responsibilities to comply with the IDEA and other civil rights laws for children with disabilities (For information on how, see U.S. DOE Monitoring Report and TX Underfunding SPED). During this legislative session, we as parents, advocates and citizens of Texas have the opportunity to say, “No more!” and demand meaningful change. Despite the fact that only 8 of the 884 bills currently filed directly relate to special education, we at TxSER fully anticipate a record number of bills will be filed this session aimed at improving outcomes for students with disabilities. Whether such measures will ultimately be funded and/or passed is much less certain. We will need to work together to ensure our legislators do what must be done.

What can you do to help?

As we move forward through the legislative session, TxSER will be using our Facebook page and other social media outlets to provide updates on bills affecting our children including filing, upcoming hearings and votes and calls for action. We strongly believe that using our collective voices to both champion bills that will benefit our children and decry those that would result in real and lasting damage to Texas children with disabilities, their families, their schools and their communities can make a difference.

Denis Borel at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities has been advocating in the Texas legislature for a long time, and he will tell you that despite all the high-paid lobbyists and consultants working behind the scenes, legislators pay attention to constituents. Even just a few people can make an enormous difference. A great example is medical marijuana for people with seizure disorders. A handful of families visiting the governor’s staff and legislators to tell their stories resulted in the passage of legislation allowing medicinal cannabis during one of the most conservative legislative sessions in Texas history.

Texas is home to more than 28 Million people (and counting), but the Texas legislature is a small, insulated world where elected officials are accustomed to seeing and hearing from the same people. On average, each Texas Representative has approximately 4,000 children with disabilities in their district. Each Texas Senator has over 19,000. Imagine how differently they might behave if they heard from even half of those families.

Contacting Your Legislator

You can find your state representative and your state senator here: https://fyi.capitol.texas.gov/Home.aspx. Visit their websites to find their phone numbers, email contact, and mailing and office addresses. Sign up for their newsletters, alerts, and social media pages. Read their bios. Learn who they are. Follow their actions.

When a bill is filed on an issue that you feel strongly about, contact your legislator’s office. You can do so in person, by phone or in writing. If you would like an in person meeting, it is best to call in advance and request an appointment. Your legislator may not be available to meet/speak with you directly; particularly during session. If this is the case, request to speak with the staff member assigned to education. Whichever form of communication you choose, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Identify yourself as a constituent. Remember - “Elected” is the key word in the phrase “elected official.” Every constituent contact is noted by legislators’ staff. These folks get used to seeing and hearing from the same people and advocacy organizations, so they will sit up and pay attention if they hear from someone they don’t know - you.

  • Identify the specific bill you are contacting them about. Include the number and a description of what the bill does (i.e. the bill caption). For example, “I’d like to speak with you about HB 116 relating to improving training and staff development for primary and secondary educators to enable them to more effectively serve all students.” Tell them your position on the bill and a brief explanation for your position.

  • Be specific about what you want your legislator to do. This can vary depending on where the bill is in the legislative process. If a bill has just been filed in the House for example, you may ask your representative in the House to support it by signing on as a co-sponsor. You can request your Senator to be the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. If the bill is scheduled for a committee hearing, you can request your legislator vote in favor (or against) the bill if s/he is a member of that committee. If the bill is scheduled to be brought to the floor of the chamber for a full vote, ask for their vote for or against the bill.

  • Be polite and respectful at all times. If they agree with you, thank them. If they do not, or they are undecided, tell them how the bill will affect your child, family and/or community. Try to include one or two specific examples. Regardless of the outcome, thank them for their time.

Spreading the Word

Texas is “the friendly state,” and the people of Texas are overwhelmingly good people who want to do the right thing. But your fellow citizens may not be aware of the issues facing children like yours and families like yours. It’s up to us to help them understand.

  • Write a letter to the editor or a guest editorial for your local newspaper. Letters should be a couple of paragraphs. Editorials should be 500 words or less. Search your newspaper’s website for the “contact” link to find out how to submit your opinion piece.

  • Speak up in your community. Tell your neighbors, the people you go to church with, your family and your friends. Ask them to make a call or send an email. Set a goal to try to get five other constituents to take up the cause. Provide them with the language and the contact information.

  • Attend town halls or other legislator meetings. Some legislators hold constituent gatherings. Go! Speak up!

  • Use social media. Use your social media to increase awareness and call for action. Follow TxSER and other disability advocacy organizations. Share their posts.

Providing Testimony

Once a bill is filed, it is assigned to a committee. When the bill is called in a hearing by the committee for the first time, the general public must be given the opportunity to attend and provide oral and/or written testimony for, on or against the bill. Given a bill must be favorably voted out by the Committee in order to proceed to the next stage, providing testimony is a valuable and direct way for you to show support for the proposed legislation. But be warned, providing oral testimony can be extremely time consuming sometimes requiring you to sacrifice an entire day to provide three minutes of testimony. Some may also find the experience a bit intimidating particularly if you are providing testimony some committee members may not particularly want to hear! But many find the experience to be both rewarding and empowering. If you are interested in providing testimony at hearings and would like to learn more about how to do so effectively, there are several disability advocacy organizations in Texas that provide guidance and training in this area to self advocates and their families including Easterseals and Texas Parent to Parent. If you are unable to attend a training in person, check out this advocacy tool kit published by the ARC of Texas in 2015.

Bills We’re Watching

There are several bills that have already been filed that we at TxSER fully support.:

HB116/SB293: (M. Gonzalez/ Lucio) This bill would require all educator preparation and professional development programs to enable teachers to effectively serve all students by integrating basic knowledge about disabilities and how they can impact learning, proactive instructional planning techniques similar to Universal Design for Learning, collaborative and inclusive teaching practices, classroom management strategies and more throughout their curriculum.

HB 108: (M. Gonzalez) This bill relates to establishing a pilot program under which public schools may use a digital portfolio method to assess student performance in grades three through eight for purposes of accountability and qualification for promotion.

HB 124: (M. Gonzalez) This bill would prohibit Districts of Innovation from exempting from teacher certification requirements for bilingual or special education.

HB 165: (Bernal) This bill relates to providing for endorsements for public high school students enrolled in special education programs.

HB 43: (Hinojosa) This bill prohibits open enrollment charter schools from denying admission to students based on disciplinary history unless more than 75% of all students enrolled are 18 or older.

HB 239/SB 209: (Farrar/Rodriguez) This bill allows a social worker to provide services to students and families in public schools.

HB 571: (Hinojosa) This bill would require TEA to develop and implement policies and procedures that increase meaningful stakeholder involvement and agency transparency.

SB 100: (Menendez) This bill would allow a foster parent of a child with a disability to act as a parent in making decisions regarding special education.

There is one bill in particular which we at TxSER strongly oppose as we feel our children will be disproportionately targeted and, consequently, exposed to potentially significant physical harm with no legal recourse as a result:

HB 414: (Flynn) This bill provides educators a defense from criminal or civil liability for using “force” against a student to defend themselves, other students or school property if, under the circumstances as the educator reasonably believes them to be, it would be justified under Chapter 9 of the Texas Penal Code.

We will keep you updated on the progress of these and other bills as they’re filed through our Facebook page.

Christine Broughal
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We envision a state in which all individuals with disabilities are identified, and receive an education that maximizes their future potential for post-secondary education, employment, community participation, and independent living.

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