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Why We Formed

Justice is what love looks like in public.
— Dr. Cornel West, Harvard Professor

the case for special education reform

Texas is home to more than 7 million children, a number representing nearly 10 percent of the children living in the United States. Using Centers for Disease Control statistics, about 15% of these children – or 1,050,000 – has one or more developmental disabilities resulting in physical, learning, language, or behavioral impairment. Childhood disability may be congenital or acquired, and may be readily recognized and diagnosed, but may also be “invisible” and manifest by struggles in learning, behavior, and mental health.

For most of human history, society held low expectations for children with disabilities, and many “invisible” disabilities went unrecognized. Thanks to the Disability Rights Movement, the U.S Congress led the world in lifting these children with the passage of powerful laws – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – that provide protections from discrimination and a process for providing them with a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. 

The process of providing disability evaluations and supports in the schools is conducted under the umbrella of special education and/or 504 supports. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Texas receives a billion dollars annually from the federal government to supplement the extra costs associated with educating students with disabilities. In passing the IDEA, Congress cited 20 years of research proving that these extra investments can pay off, as children provided an opportunity to access learning are more likely to finish high school, access post-secondary education, be employed, and live independently. 

Emerging neuroscience, pedagogical research, and technological advancements also offer much promise for educational efficacy for children with disabilities. As generations of “IDEA kids” come of age, colleges and universities are expanding their disability services and offering programs for students of all abilities to engage in higher learning and employment and independent living skills development. Many of the educational strategies and techniques incubated in special education, such as the practice of universal design for learning, are being applied to improve learning outcomes for all students. Though often stigmatized, special education’s core principle of individualized instruction and related services supports is better viewed as a model to transform our outdated “factory model” of education to the needs of the 21st Century. 

Unfortunately, Texas has not met these opportunities. The collaborative, solutions-oriented, student-centered process involving educators and families has been overshadowed by practices focused on gatekeeping resources, using legal loopholes to limit the civil rights of children and families, and a culture of avoidance. Legal requirements are ignored. Frustrated and ethically compromised educators are leaving the profession. Already challenged families are traumatized, and children are missing critical opportunities to maximize their abilities and achieve their educational potential, bumping them higher on the risks for everything from truancy to suicide.

“Please help us. We’re drowning,” one mother wrote to the U.S. Department of Education during its recent investigation into an arbitrary Texas Education Agency cap on the number of children who receive special education. Though it was the Houston Chronicle’s “Denied” exposure that led to the cap’s investigation, it is clear from the input submitted by hundreds of families, educators, and students across the state that the problems are far deeper, and that even those who have not been left behind by the cap are not receiving quality special education. 

Texas schools are spending tens of millions of dollars annually on lawyers who have found a lucrative business in using the laws intended by Congress and by Texas to protect the educational civil rights of children to fight those rights. These lawyers have an outsized voice with policy makers, associations, lawmakers and education agencies, while parents, teachers, and advocates are kept behind the gates. This conflict-oriented culture is not serving children, educators, taxpayers, or Texas society well.

Texans for Special Education Reform believes there is a better way, and we are making it our mission to pursue it.

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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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