Special needs Texans waiting on improved services after education bill fails

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Amy Litzinger’s educational journey was harder than most.

She doesn’t write with her hands, move with her feet, or live independently of dedicated caregivers — daily challenges of a life with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. She has, however, thrived throughout her life. Excelling in class and on stage, earning her college degree, and working the halls of the Texas Capitol are all proud accomplishments her diagnosis could not deter.

“It has been something that I’ve lived with and thrived with since I’ve been in education,” she said. “Your diagnosis doesn’t always define your potential.”

Litzinger credits her success to the support of abundant special education services — the public school paraprofessionals who helped her become a gifted and talented student in advanced placement courses, the family and friends determined to help her accomplish anything her able-bodied classmates could.

She worries, however, that today’s special needs students are not getting that same help.

“Right now, that’s not happening for many students with disabilities, because there’s not enough funding for the amount of paraprofessionals we need,” she said. “We really need more funding, not less, because I want other students with disabilities who are in education after me to have the same if not better experiences than I did. It shouldn’t change just because you are born in a different year.”

Just before this year’s regular legislative session, a special commission of lawmakers reported Texas is underfunding special education services by nearly $2 billion. Their recommendations for improving services have gone unfulfilled nearly a year later.

This final report proved that the State is underfunding the (local education agencies) by more than $1.8 Billion Dollars. So, instead of diverting funds from General Revenue to fund an ESA (education savings account), the Commission should first recommend that the State fully fund the ‘GAP’ that currently exists,” Dan Huberty, the former chairman of the House Public Education committee, wrote in the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding’s December 2022 report.

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More than 635,000 students receive special education services in Texas public schools, but few of them are ready for the next step after graduating. Only 11% of special needs students in the Class of 2020 were deemed ready for college, compared with 53% of all students, according to the Texas Education Agency’s Academic Performance Report.

About 68% of special needs students were deemed ready for a career in 2020, using “Career Readiness indicators” unique to students with disabilities. Only 1.8% of special needs students were deemed ready for a career using the same indicators applied to other students.

In mid-November, major education funding legislation that would have addressed some of these shortfalls died in the House.

House Bill 1 would have invested more than $750 million into special education funding, allowing schools to hire more staff, and would have doubled districts’ incentives for getting special needs students ready for life after high school.

All of those provisions failed to pass due to the intractable impasse over education savings accounts, Gov. Greg Abbott’s priority plan to use public money for private school tuition subsidies. The House combined special education funding with ESAs, teacher pay raises and dozens of other education items as part of the massive omnibus bill.

Abbott has made clear he will not sign a bill for public school funding without ESAs. As long as ESAs remain unpopular in the House, all other educational priorities are in limbo.

Litzinger, who now works as a policy specialist with Texas Parent to Parent, joined a coalition of superintendents and parents of special needs students at the Capitol this month to advocate for more support.

“In the world of advocating for children with disabilities, you hear ‘no, that’s not in our budget,’ or ‘we are not able to provide those services due to funding,'” said Sarah Hardin, whose daughter Annie has Down syndrome. “It seems like there’s never enough — a fear that any school will lose funding necessary to provide her with an exceptional education if a voucher program is passed. Schools are already scrambling to cover services for our children with disabilities.”

Texans like Hardin and Litzinger hope it won’t take another special session for the legislature to support their special needs.

“If you don’t fix it, the students will, eventually,” Litzinger said. “That’s why I’m optimistic about this — even even if the adults lose hope, I don’t think the students will take no for an answer… Don’t count us out just yet.”

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