In recent years, the Texas government has been shockingly indifferent to the needs of children with disabilities. The state legislature has greatly restricted access to vital educational and medical resources, leaving thousands of parents in a quandary – to put it very mildly – over how to provide for their children. Moreover, the state government has disregarded some of the most fundamental national laws on disability rights.
Throughout this piece, we’ll focus on the ways the Texas government has deprived children of a) special education services and b) applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, as well as discuss what they could do to better serve youth with disabilities.
Arbitrary cap on Texas special education enrollment
A new federal report indicates that for over a decade, Texas has kept thousands of eligible students out of special education programs. The state has both failed to identify and evaluate children who are in need of services, as well as to provide children who already have documented disabilities with the “free and appropriate education” guaranteed to them by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The report comes on the heels of an investigative piece by Brian M. Rosenthal, printed in the Houston Chronicle. This piece, aptly titled “Denied,” revealed that back in 2004, Texas set a goal of limiting special education services to 8.5% of students. By 2015, they achieved this goal; the rate of Texan children receiving special education services had dropped from near the national average of 13% to the lowest in the country. In his 2016 article, Rosenthal estimated that 250,000 students were currently suffering from a lack of critical services – services they were legally entitled to.
Rosenthal writes that the cap on special education enrollment “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.”
The Chronicle also found that English Language Learners were disproportionately affected, probably because language barriers and/or a lack of familiarity with U.S. laws made it difficult for their parents to advocate for them.
Who Exactly Is At Fault?
After the Houston Chronicle piece was published and this issue was brought to light, conversations began to center on who could be blamed for barring Texas kids from special education services.
Some pointed the finger at district and school-level administrators, as well as individual teachers. It’s true that many administrators and educators were complicit. Certain districts flat-out lied to parents about their rights, telling them they would have to pay for evaluations, that there were waiting lists, or that they should opt for private schooling or homeschooling (federal law dictates that children be given free evaluations at their parents’ request, and that any students who are eligible must be given special education services). Moreover, instead of evaluating students with serious learning difficulties, some schools simply gave them Section 504 plans. Essentially, this means these children received certain accommodations such as extra testing time, but were never evaluated for special education services. Giving a student a Section 504 plan is much cheaper than actually providing special education services, but also does little to help children who are really struggling. Many of these students fell seriously behind, became depressed, or were suspended or expelled.
The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, attempted to expunge himself of guilt as best he could. He recently referred to a “past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students.” This frustrated many administrators and educators, who noted that they were not the ones primarily at fault – rather, the state government must accept the majority of the responsibility. As HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD, told the Texas Tribune, “We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict. We were following what they put in place.”
Indeed, districts that resisted were forced to write “Corrective Action Plans” explaining how they would reduce special education enrollment. Individual staff members also knew that there could be professional repercussions for identifying too many students with disabilities.
Texas has finally done away with the benchmark limiting special education services to 8.5% of students. However, the state government remains reluctant to take full responsibility for all the wrongs they have committed against students with disabilities.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) inaccessible to families in Texas
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is widely considered to be the most effective treatment for autism spectrum disorder. ABA involves breaking tasks, such as brushing teeth, into smaller steps so that children with autism are more easily able to understand it. Therapists also work with children to practice social skills like making eye contact and verbalizing requests.
In most states, ABA is recognized as an essential therapy for children with autism, and is covered by Medicaid. However, that is not the case in Texas. Although the federal government would cover almost 70% of the cost, the state government refuses to cover the remaining 30%. About 700 families are currently enrolled in a state-run autism program that provides ABA at little to no cost; however, the hours are very limited. Moreover, Texas families can only participate for six months at a time – then they must wait six more months before resuming treatment. This can seriously interrupt a child’s progress.
Texas Families Face Difficult Decisions
Suzanne Potts, executive director of the Autism Society of Texas, told Disability Scoop that Texan families often “have to choose between paying their bills and paying for therapy for their child.”
Some families have the resources to pay for therapy at full-cost, but this is uncommon. A one-hour session is about 50-100 dollars, and it is often recommended that children participate in ABA therapy for 25-40 hours a week.
Texas resident Katie Down and her husband ended up selling their home and moving in with her parents in order to pay for a high-deductible insurance plan so that their three year old son, Mason, could access the ABA therapy he needed. Although for them this plan was a better deal than Medicaid, they still had to pay as much as $3,000 a month for ABA and speech therapy. A year and a half into treatment, Down told Disability Scoop that Mason is “a completely different kid.”
Although she is very happy with his progress, the decision they made was not an easy one. “It makes me sad that this is what we had to do – lose everything we worked hard for over the years. But it makes me even more sad to think about the families who don’t have that option. When will they get help?”
In 2014, the federal agency that oversees Medicaid – the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – reminded states that they must cover medically-necessary autism services. Texas has yet to comply.
Of course, the actions of the Texas government are both morally and legally problematic. They may also be financially unsound. Peter Hofer, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, called Texas’ refusal to comply with Medicaid’s request “short-sighted,” because students who receive ABA would likely require fewer special education services down the line.
It is not just ABA that is difficult for families in Texas to obtain. Many children are also deprived of physical, occupational, and speech therapy services, due to cuts in Medicaid reimbursements for pediatric therapists. This could also result in higher costs to the state in the future.
Overall, the Texas legislature has failed children with disabilities miserably. Special education and therapeutic services can do wonders in helping children reach their potential. Denying even one child of such resources is a tragedy; the state of Texas has denied thousands.
If the Texas government were to make access to vital resources like special education and ABA more widely available, the next generation of children could grow up to be much more independent, productive, and healthy.
Do you live in Texas? Would you like to urge your representatives to do more for children with special needs? Please click here.