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In Texas, Families With Special Education Needs Feel Their Kids Are Getting Shortchanged

Bill Zeeble
Pete and Allison Yoder with son Will, who's on the autism spectrum. He's grown and learned without hurting others in a pricey private school. The Yoders say the school should be free by legal standards.

Texas has the lowest special education enrollment numbers in the nation. Parents of some special needs students say they’ve spent years fighting with Texas schools to get services for their kids — services schools are required to provide under federal law. 

Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported that for 12 years, Texas intentionally delayed or withheld special education services to save money. Federal authorities now say Texas needs to justify their policies. Some parents feel stuck in the middle.

Rosly Espinoza first suspected something was up with her middle daughter, Citlali, in pre-kindergarten. Citlali wasn’t paying attention and sometimes acted out. Through a translator, Espinoza says it got worse in first grade.

“It all started with school issues,” Espinoza says. “Lack of interest,  teachers’ notes coming home with behavior notes.”

Espinoza asked school officials to evaluate her daughter, but they didn’t.  That test is required before a student gets special education services. Last year, in second grade, she says things got worse.

“She stopped paying attention in class,” Espinoza says. And she was “harassing other children. On some occasions she would scream, yell.”

Credit Espinoza family
Citlali's in 3rd grade. After years of back and forth discussions, she was finally tested and admitted into a special education program, says her mom's attorney.

Again, Espinoza pushed for an evaluation for Citlali. The school offered counseling, but not additional special education services.  District reports show Citlali remained aggressive toward classmates, but notes she was also extremely smart. Her grades, though, didn’t show it.

A frustrated Espinoza got an attorney: Kym Rogers, with the nonprofit Disability Rights Texas - DRT. Rogers says that’s what finally got the youngster evaluated.

“Because we put it in writing. Because I requested it,” says Rogers, in her DRT office.

Rogers says it shouldn’t take a lawyer’s note to force the school's hand.

“Every school district has an obligation to identify students who are eligible for special education,” Rogers says. “And they’re not to just wait for a parent request for an evaluation. If there’s reason to suspect there’s a disability, the school district has an obligation to do that evaluation.”

Rogers believes that evaluation was delayed to keep Citlali from receiving services. And Rogers says this story isn’t unique.

The Number Of Kids Who Need Help Is Growing

For a dozen years, the Texas Education Agency has reportedly threatened to crack down on districts if their special education enrollment exceeds 8.5 percent. The national average? 13 percent. The cap makes no sense to Mike Moses, who ran the Texas Education Agency - the TEA - from 1995 to 1999.

“It just doesn’t seem to me we would likely see a decrease in the number of special education children,” Moses reasons. “At one time point we had a state average of 11 percent or 12 percent.”

On top of that, Moses says the number of low birth weight babies, teen pregnancies, kids in poverty…the kids who most often need these services, have only grown since he served. In Lancaster, where Espinoza lives, enrollment’s even lower than the 8.5 percent cap. It’s 7.8 percent.  Attorney Kym Rogers blames the state.

“I think districts are under a lot of pressure to comply with state cap that’s been put into place by TEA,” Rogers says.

Lancaster officials didn’t agree to interviews with KERA, but answered email questions saying they’ve not been pressured by the TEA and they do what’s best for children. 

If the allegations of delaying or denying services are true, that means Texas kept special education services from thousands of kids, and saved millions in the process.

Financial Burden Has Been Placed On Families

Source is the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013-2014. The Texas percentage is more recent.

Some parents say the education costs have been transferred onto Texas families and their special needs kids.

Kids like Will Yoder, an excitable 8 year-old on the autism spectrum. Pete and Allison Yoder put him in one public school district, then another. Even with adult supervision, Pete says his son Will was a handful. Like one time…

“He broke out of the room, ran down the hall and opened up a random first grade door and pulled over a little girl and just stepped all over her face and laughed hysterically,” Pete Yoder says.

The girl was OK.  But after too many unpredictable outbursts, and dissatisfaction with the public school’s response, the Yoders put Will in a pricey private school. He’s improving. There’s a cost.

“We really can’t afford the $20,000,” Pete Yoder says.

Without help, the Yoders says they’re slowly burning through their financial and emotional reserves. They say they know many families with special needs kids with no reserves. Allison Yoder says there’s a lot more at stake than their own Will.

“He’s aggressive. He has mental disturbances. And if no one ever listens to us, he’s going to grow up and he’s going to be society’s issue,” says Allison Yoder.

The TEA says it’s reviewing its policy, while denying that special education services were withheld from qualified children.  Federal officials have given Texas until Nov. 2 to back those statements. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.