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'Cautiously Optimistic': Parents, Lawyers See Texas' First Steps Toward Special Ed Reform

Bill Zeeble
Father Pete Yoder and son Will, who's on the autism spectrum, at home in Fort Worth.

Texas says it promises to reform its special education services following federal findings that the state denied thousands of children those services for over a decade.

Lawyers and parents say the state has a long way to go.

Beyond education

A rambunctious, at times excitable, 10-year-old Will Yoder is just home from school in Fort Worth. As he talks about his latest obsession – sinkholes – his dad Pete Yoder explains that Will is on the autism spectrum and can sometimes get violent, hurting himself and others.

Will has needed special education services for at least half his life. Pete Yoder welcomes the U.S Department of Education's findings that Texas illegally denied special education to thousands of kids with disabilities.  

“The fact that the feds have cracked down on Texas, and Texas has admitted they need to make changes, it’s basically a good first step,” Yoder said. “And there are so many other fights: It goes beyond the education. While this a step in the right direction, nothing’s going to ever pay back for the years of our loss.”

Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency are working on a final response to the U.S. Department of Education. Before delivering its final Corrective Action Plan on April 18, the TEA says it will hold public hearings, hire additional staff in coming years, and spend more than $84 million. It also says it will serve more students who qualify for special education services. 

“The commissioner shares the governor’s commitment to doing what’s right for special education students in our public schools,” said DeEtta Culbertson with TEA's communications staff. “And so he will work at addressing and adding significant resources focused on increasing technical assistance and training for our school systems.”

"While this a step in the right direction, nothing's going to ever pay back for the years of our loss."

Financial, emotional toll

Yoder says in Texas, it’s always been a struggle getting special education services for his son.

“It’s unfortunate that they had to be forced into this corner rather than be willing to walk the walk and help the needy,” Yoder said. “We’re in a very difficult situation on a daily life in our own home. And to have the fact that the schools have denied us in multiple school districts up until this point, you know, it’s been a battle.”

It was a financial battle, Yoder says, when they had to put Will in private school for a time. It’s been an emotional battle, too, for his family and thousands of other Texas parents through the years. Dallas Attorney Kym Rogers, with Disability Rights Texas, has represented many of them.

“We think there are encouraging elements in what TEA has proposed, but there is still a lot of work to be done," she said. "TEA has committed to a transparent process with active involvement from the stakeholders and they need to follow through on this commitment.”

Robbi Cooper, who leads the Austin grassroots group Decoding Dyslexia Texas, is one of those stakeholders. Her child, Ben, has dyslexia. When federal officials came to Texas to hear from parents about special education, she told them what was missing for kids like her son.

“We were able to provide input on what we would have liked to have seen,” Cooper said. “And I felt as if they included a lot of our concerns and needs. It was well thought through. You know, I’m cautiously optimistic. This is not the end of a process; it’s just the beginning.”

"That's a whole generation — 14 years. How much is it going to cost to find these kids?"

Denied generation

And so Cooper will be watching. As will Sonja Kerr, with the Cuddy Law Firm in Austin. The special education attorney isn’t sure the money Texas says it’ll spend for students will be enough.

“We’ve represented kids with dyslexia, we’ve represented kids with emotional disturbance who were not identified, we’re representing a child who was blind, who was not identified,” Kerr said. “What we get from the Corrective Action Plan is $125, per kid.”

Kerr says that only covers about an hour of tutoring. She adds there’s an untold number of kids who needed special education services but never got them. And she says many frustrated parents just gave up and moved out of state.

“That’s a whole generation — 14 years. How much is it going to cost to find these kids? To actually evaluate them? You know a typical evaluation of a kid is $2,000 and $4,000. So a big, big question: Who’s going to find and evaluate these kids in a timely manner? Because the casualties are continuing,” Kerr said.

Kerr appreciates that Texas is finally addressing these problems. Only she wonders how many kids were harmed because the state withheld services — unchecked and with no punishment — for almost 15 years.

“If I park in a handicapped parking spot in the state of Texas,” Kerr said, “I’ll  get a $500 fine for doing it once. If I ruin a child’s life by not qualifying that kid for special education and giving that child the services that the child needs, I don’t have to play a dime.” 

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