Texas Leaders: Stop blaming students with disabilities and do your job

Photo by Lara Solt for KERA

For more than a decade, the Texas Legislature and two governors have neglected their duty to properly fund public education. No single group has been hurt more by this failure in leadership than Texas children with disabilities.

Financially strapped school districts and TEA’s illegal 8.5 percent enrollment cap have denied the civil rights of over a half-million children to receive appropriate educations. The result is a generation of students who have not had the opportunity to meet their full potential. Teachers have also been the target of administrative pressure, wage erosion and belittling attacks. For children with disabilities, their teachers are the most important people in the school system. Texans have watched in dismay while teachers have been marginalized and denied the opportunity to make a difference. Texas elected officials at every level have paid lip service to solving these problems while turning a blind eye to these grave injustices.

Now, instead of doing their jobs to repair their shameful failure, the Texas governor and lieutenant governor want to bribe families out of their children’s educational civil rights by offering vouchers to nowhere with their proposal to use public money for private schooling of special needs students. In a classic move of victim blaming — the governor has publicly wondered if it is “really efficient for every public school in the state of Texas to adequately address the full panoply of the special needs of all our children.”

Wow.

Imagine any other population being offered a voucher to leave the public school. Imagine any other population’s education being discussed as a question of efficiency.

Public special education is not a place. It is a civil right based on law passed and reauthorized several times by the Congress of our nation, and repeatedly upheld — and recently strengthened — by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law protects the rights of students with disabilities to be educated in their neighborhood schools alongside their friends and siblings, and it already provides a process for private schooling of the rare individuals who cannot be served in public classrooms.

As parents and educators who know, love, teach and believe in the nearly 1 million Texas kids who have learning, physical, intellectual, sensory, behavioral or mental health disabilities, we will not stand by as these children are blamed for the failure of Texas elected officials to properly fund our schools, as their rights are whittled away and as they are used as pawns to dismantle our state’s public education system. Our public schools are the foundation of our democracy, and students with disabilities are equal citizens with a right to participate. We are not going back to the nightmare of “special schools” and segregation, when these kids were hidden away in low-expectations warehouses.

It is both the law and it is “efficient” to prepare Texas students with disabilities for public adulthood as college students, employees and Americans living meaningful and independent lives. Every day, we do our jobs to help these students with that preparation. It’s high time for Texas lawmakers to do theirs.

Cheryl Fries

Co-founder, Texans for Special Education Reform

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