Is enough really enough? The case for funding special education

Vanessa Tijerina addresses U.S. Department of Education officials about her 13-year-old special needs child who has been denied special education for four years on December 13, 2016 Photo by Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

As a state, we are required to provide a free, appropriate public education for all students, regardless of ability. Not doing so would make Texas the target of various intervention mechanisms in our country, as evidenced by the recent action by the U.S. Department of Education regarding the 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment encouraged by state policies. We fund public education; and therefore, we fund special education.

Time and time again, the conversation of adequacy arises in the crafting of legislation, appropriations and policies that affect the financing of public education.

Is this enough? Is this enough to buy us time between court cases or federal intervention? Is this enough to get by?

In a state where a "C" is deemed as "enough" in terms of adequacy, should that really be the goal of policy makers when it comes to funding our most vulnerable students?

Is enough really enough?

When it comes to public education and particularly special education, the short answer is, "No."

In order to succeed, students with special needs require more than minimal support from public schools. It is the state's responsibility to ensure that these students are provided robust services during the school day that will allow them to have meaningful impact on their community upon graduation. The momentous task should not lie solely with the families of these students.

As a father of a student with a disability, I have experienced first-hand the limitations of the special education services that our schools provide. Furthermore, those services are difficult to navigate. As a former school board president and the current chairman of the House Committee on Public Education, even I struggle with keeping it all straight. During STAAR testing, my family often has to monitor the proctors to ensure that my son gets accommodations he requires for these already stressful exams. Diligence on the part of the parents and guardians is key.

My fellow parents of students with special needs will attest that advocating for your child is a full-time job. For a working parent, this process is even more difficult. Aside from the frequent Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) meetings that include Individual Education Program (IEP) negotiations, or even trying to get our children qualified for special education services, we parents still have to parent outside the school day. Even when an IEP is negotiated, it can even be difficult for parents to trust that the school district is able to provide the necessary services and to navigate through the options.

Each service, like each student, has something different to provide. For instance, individual attention from an aide can help a student with autism attain meaningful inclusion in the classroom. One-on-one coaching from a certified academic language therapist to help a student with dyslexia or a related disorder complete necessary reading can ensure that she does not fall behind in her classes. Access to the right technology can assist students who are blind or visually impaired to read, write and communicate effectively. These three examples hardly scratch the surface of which programs are needed by this widely-varying student population.

Some would argue that more funding does not directly impact outcomes; however, for students with special needs, this is obviously untrue.

A meaningful increase in funding for students with special needs could mean more contact hours from trained professionals, more meaningful inclusion, more adaptive technology, more enrichment and more identification. An increase in funding for these programs could, simply put, do more.

Frankly, implementing these programs, although they are required by law, is an expensive process whose cost is being passed on to the taxpayer in the form of school district property tax hikes. It's easy to understand; the more money school districts have, the easier it is for them to implement innovative programs that provide more than the bare minimum of services. As the state share of funding of public education plummets, school districts' only option is to turn to taxpayers. The state is not doing its job when it comes to servicing this growing population of students, because at the state level we do not have the political appetite to shoulder some of the costs of these programs. It's disheartening, and yet here we are.

As we move into the 86th Legislature, it is my hope that legislators keep this in mind and listen to their constituents who have direct experience with these types of programs in our public schools. Doing so will allow them to understand, as I do, that funding special education enrichment programs robustly will have a meaningful, life-altering impact on the lives of Texans who are currently being underserved. As a Legislature we should all be fighting for more for our students, regardless of ability. Moving forward, we need to keep in mind that we continue to fail our special populations by funding programs and schools at a level that allows them to provide only the bare minimum of services. Adequacy in regard to these programs is not the answer. Enough is simply not enough.

Dan Huberty

State representative, R-Houston