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Texas House Approves State Schools Reforms

By Ben Philpott, KUT Radio

Dallas, TX –

Those advocates also say it's been a very frustrating wait for some legislation to pass the House and Senate. Back in January, Texas Governor Rick Perry gave the issue emergency status. That designation usually pushes bills rapidly through the legislative process. Not so with state school legislation.

Dawn Choate: "So far I think it's been a very slow process. I think there's been a lot of political things going on in the background which has kind of slowed the bill up."

Dawn Choate is with the Arc of Texas, a group that advocates for the rights of Texans with mental and physical disabilities. She says the bill just hasn't been able to grab the attention of enough lawmakers to push it faster through the system. But she's grateful to those that have carried the legislation, including Dripping Springs Democrat and Representative Patrick Rose. Rose says the bill that's in the House will take a number of steps to protect those currently in the state's 13 institutions. Including adding an on-site investigator that should not only make sure allegations of abuse are investigated - but that allegations are reported in the first place.

Rose: "Corpus Christi PD only was referred 17 individual investigations in the calendar year 2008 during all that "fight club" mess. Clearly the reporting of abuse, neglect and exploitation wasn't seamless appropriate or adequate."

Groups like the Arc of Texas and others are thankful for the changes made in the bill, but they say there's still a long way to go to provide a better living environment to current state school residents, especially when looking at a recent Department of Justice report assessing the problems within the Texas systems.

Choate: "You have to remember that the DOJ report also determined that we weren't serving people in our most integrated settings. And that we did heavily rely on our institutions. And I would really like to see some of that put in this bill. At least to look at it - to determine what we need to do to start increasing those options."

Representative Rose says that while cleaning up the institutions was the goal of this bill, there remains a great need to increase the state's capacity in its non-institutional services - like group home, individual apartment or other community based living situations. But that takes money, something that there never seems to be enough of - especially in a recession.

Reporting from the Texas Capitol - I'm Ben Philpott.