My testimony against SB 3: Why an educational savings account would be useless for my son

On March 21, 2017, I went to the Texas capitol to testify against SB 3, the newest salvo in the GOP’s school choice crusade. For those who have never testified at a state hearing and want to know what to expect, I will write elsewhere about the process and my experience. The TL;DR version: I didn’t get to give an oral testimony, but I was able to submit a written testimony. I am sharing my public testimony in the hopes that the issues we face make it to the intended congressional ears.

 

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SB 3 Testimony

My name is Felicia Miyakawa and I represent myself. I live in Round Rock. I am a special education advocate and a mom of two kids, both of whom have qualified for Special Education services under IDEA. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today in opposition to SB 3.

I would like to share with you how this bill might impact my 10-year-old son. After 2 years of homeschooling, he has chosen to return to a traditional school setting; he will enter middle school this fall. My son has asked to have input into which school he attends, and we have been considering several options. We applied to an excellent charter school in our county. Since it is a public charter school, it would offer my son the protection of IDEA. But the school, which admits students through a lottery system, is overwhelmed with applicants; he’s 104th on the waiting list for next year. He is also on the lengthy waiting list for a private school that has an excellent track record for kids like him, kids who are twice exceptional, who are both gifted and have learning disabilities or developmental disabilities. This private school, however, could reject his application for any reason. If we are able to “choose” this option, we would not only have to pay sizeable tuition, we would also sign away our rights to IDEA protection (and this is a point that I will come back to). As a third option, which currently seems like our only option, we can enroll him in his zoned public school, which offers the protection of IDEA, assures transportation, and is tuition free. But the classes are large, and teachers are poorly trained to deal with kids like him. These are our so-called choices.

So what would this voucher system do for him? At present: nothing. I would like to draw your attention to eligibility requirements for the proposed voucher program. Section 29.354, paragraph 2 includes “attended a public school during the entire preceding academic year” as a requirement for enrolling in this program. Because my son has been homeschooled for 2 years, he would be ineligible for this voucher plan. And he’s not alone. We are what is colloquially called “accidental homeschoolers.” We did not intend to homeschool. We began to homeschool my son when it became clear that the school system was failing him and we had already worked our way through a spectrum of more restrictive placements. What I learned after I began this homeschool journey is that there’s a huge and growing number of “accidental homeschoolers” all over Texas. What do we have in common? Our children need special education services and either did not receive them at all or did not receive sufficient or appropriate services. (For recent evidence, I would point the members of this committee to the Houston Chronicle’s exposé about TEA’s 8.5% cap on special education. Brian Rosenthal’s essays were full of parents who, like me, pulled their kids out of the system when the system failed to deliver adequate—or even basic—services.) Anyone who has had to pull their kids out of school because the schools didn’t deliver appropriate special education services would be shut out of this voucher program.

In 2012, our lieutenant governor said: “If… a family feels they need a better opportunity, they should have that right… And especially, students with disabilities and autism, to be trapped in a school that can’t help you get over a disability, is a sin. And we’re going to stand up for that community.” But this voucher system will not achieve greater protection for disabled kids. Even if children with disabilities are accepted into private schools and can afford to go, they will lose their federal protection under IDEA and Section 504. Section 230.053, paragraph c of this bill specifically instructs private schools to give parents notice that their disabled children will receive no federal or state protection. Without this protection, children and parents would have no recourse, no way to fight for a free and appropriate education, which is their legal right.

I respectfully ask that this committee, and the legislature as a body, turn its attention back to enforcing and funding the laws that already exist, rather than putting our vulnerable children at even more risk.

Thank you again for your time. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Special Education identification: what we’re up against in Texas

READ: “DENIED: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Students out of Special Education,” by Brian M. Rosenthal

In today’s Houston Chronicle, reporter Brian M. Rosenthal exposed a decade-long policy that has led to the denial of special education services for hundreds of thousands of kids. In a nutshell: the national average of kids who receive special education services is 13%; in Texas, our state education agency (TEA) has artificially kept our average to 8.5%.

“Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.”

TEA has accomplished this goal by systematically denying services to kids with disabilities of all types. (Rosenthal provides a close look at several common strategies districts employ to deny service.) Kids in large cities–particularly those for whom English is not a native language–suffer the most, Rosenthal has found. “In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 are in Texas.”

Advocates, attorneys, and parents in Texas have been aware of these numbers. Legislators, according to this investigation, apparently have not been aware of these numbers, nor of the TEA’s policy. TEA continues to deny that the severe reduction in identification (from around 12% in 2004 to 8.5% now) was purposeful. District Special Education coordinators also fail to see the numbers as a problem, arguing tautologically that their local levels reflect state averages so they must be on target. I’ve done independent research about identification in my district and neighboring districts and have found the following data (freely available on TEA’s website). The percentages below are the district percentages of kids served under IDEA in the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent data available.

  • Austin ISD: 9.9% (identification rose to 10.2% last year)
  • Round Rock ISD: 8.5% (exactly like the state average, hmm.)
  • Eanes ISD (a district in / near the city of Austin): 7.9%
  • Lake Travis (just north-west of Austin): 7.0%
  • Leander ISD (a bit more north of the Lake Travis district): 9.7%
  • Hutto ISD (just east of Round Rock, where I live): 9.2%

I could go on and on, but this is enough to make the point: every one of these districts falls far short of the national average. And contrary to what districts argue, these numbers aren’t lower because early intervention eases the need for support by the time children are ready for Kindergarten. Let me put it this way: if a deaf / hearing impaired child is identified as needing services at birth, how will she be less deaf / hearing impaired at age 5 and less in need of accommodations at school? Sounds ridiculous, yet this Chronicle study has found that identification / provision of services has fallen by 15% for deaf / haring impaired children since 2004. Rosenthal estimates that if Texas actually complied with Federal law, about 250,000 more kids would receive services (In 2015-2016, Texas public schools enrolled almost 5.3 million kids.) What happens to these kids?

“Parents have pulled thousands of them out of public school in favor of home schooling or expensive private schools, according to interviews and data.

Others have been left to languish in regular classrooms without the individualized help they need, advocates said.

Many have fallen behind, become depressed and been suspended or expelled, the advocates said. Some have even entered the criminal justice system or otherwise required intensive adult services that cost far more than special education, they said.”

Homeschooling a kid because schools can’t accommodate him? You don’t say.

In a separate blog, I’ll deal with how these numbers overlap with 2e identification. It’s an interrelated SNAFU with its own glorious details. In the meantime, If you are a parent in Texas, know a parent in Texas, or simply care about whether or not ALL of the children in Texas deserve a Free and Appropriate Public Education, please share Rosenthal’s research. See how your state stacks up with Texas. Be suspicious if your state’s rate of identification is under the national average and dig deeper. Join us as we put pressure on our state officials.

*UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle is seeking additional testimony from families whose children have been denied Special Education services. If you want to participate in this on-going investigation, here is a form to contact the newspaper.