The state of Texas has been working to correct serious problems in special education highlighted by an investigative report by the Houston Chronicle in 2016. The series of reports shined a spotlight on how Texas was shortchanging special education for more than a decade. When federal education officials did their own investigation, they estimated that over 13 years, 32,000 students missed out on services they should have gotten.
One of the biggest problems was with dyslexia services. That learning disability was never classified under special education, and that reduced oversight and enforcement.
But this session lawmakers changed that, and will now help schools pay for interventions. The moves give parents and advocates hope for the future.
“The Delay Was Our Denial”
Even before her younger daughter, Isabelle, was supposed to start kindergarten, Christine Chien noticed she was struggling with letters and numbers. Once enrolled in her Dallas-area public school, Isabelle still had trouble. Chien thought her daughter might have dyslexia. But Isabelle’s kindergarten teacher dismissed those concerns. By the beginning of first grade, Isabelle was coming home in tears. Her mom says the school wasn’t responsive.
“The answer that we got back from our district, maybe by 2nd grade, was that we needed to stop asking to be evaluated for dyslexia,” Chien recalls. “They said, ‘Your child does not have dyslexia. Stop asking.’ For us, that was our denial.“
This was hard on everyone, especially Isabelle. And there was one moment her mom remembers vividly.
“We were sitting in our van, and she was sitting in her car seat, because she still had one. And she asked, ‘Mama, I know God doesn’t make mistakes. But why did he make me like this? Why is it so hard for me to learn how to read?’ And for a parent, it just, that broke my heart. I’m like, ‘I don’t know, but I am going to find out!’”
Chien says her daughter finally got a full evaluation in 3rd grade. The results showed she has dyslexia, plus memory and auditory processing issues.
Today, Chien knows that, had she and her husband requested a “full evaluation” the district would, legally, have had 45 days do it. But since they didn’t know the proper terminology, the district could keep pushing her off. “The delay was our denial,” Chien says.
That experience repeated for thousands of families statewide for more than a decade. Today, Isabelle reads above grade level with the help of assistive technology. But even so, Chien says her daughter’s confidence suffered from that delayed identification.
Research shows, most struggling readers never catch up to their peers without early intervention. Other studies show long term emotional and even economic effects when learning differences are identified late or are missed.
Christine Chien says that moment in the van spurred her to action. Today she’s an advocate for dyslexic students statewide. Last November, the Texas Education Agency approved a new Dyslexia Handbook. Chien worked behind the scenes, representing parents during the rewrite.
“Early identification is stressed hugely throughout that handbook,” says Kelley Mersinger, a teacher at Goldthwaite Elementary school. “I think things are a lot more black and white.”
A Model Of Dyslexia Education In Texas
Located an hour and a half west of Waco, Goldthwaite Elementary is uniquely dedicated to providing dyslexia interventions. Mersinger and her fellow dyslexia teachers meet with students either one-on-one, or in small groups, for 45 minutes, four times a week.
“Our program is the envy of a lot of places in the state,” enthuses Ronnie Wright, Superintendent of Goldthwaite Independent School District. They’ve chosen to cut back on some administrative areas and other spending to fund four dyslexia teachers. That’s a big investment since the state hasn’t earmarked any funds to help cover the extra training, personnel, student testing and dyslexia materials costs.
On average, it’s twice as expensive to educate a child that qualifies for special ed services.
So Wright was happy when, this legislative session, Texas lawmakers set aside new money to help districts pay for dyslexia interventions. “It’ll mean a lot to us! [We’re] able to free up some money to be able to work on some other programs that we have been dedicating to our dyslexia.”
Advocates describe the 2019 session as a perfect storm for dyslexia education. There was federal pressure. And both House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, and Chairman of the House Education Committee, Dan Hueberty, are personally affected by dyslexia. Both men, and their children have dyslexia.
A Successful Legislative Session For Dyslexia Advocates
“Hats off to both parties, and all the legislators this session,” says Robbi Cooper, who handles policy for Decoding Dyslexia Texas. “You never get everything you want. But I would say this session we got 90% of what we could have asked for.”
On top of funding. State lawmakers clarified that students with dyslexia can have their needs met under special education in Texas Public Schools, much stricter than a 504 plan.
“We’re talking about a state that has really been frugal about how the fund education in general. And to really do an about face the way that they did. Everybody put issues aside.” Cooper says, “I think at the end of the day, there’s always gonna be people who think it should have been more. But they really all worked together and they invested quite a bit in public education.”
Another area Texas legislators focused on this year: Technology. Schools must now notify parents if there’s technology, like IPADS, available for dyslexic students to check out.
That’s one thing that’s really worked for Tabatha Herrera’s two dyslexic daughters. Herrera was a Goldthwaite student in the early 90s. When she was diagnosed with dyslexia, she was sent to a sort of training camp for a few weeks. But Herrera says she sees a world of difference in the help her daughters get at Goldthwaite.
"Now with it being scheduled daily, it helps them achieve more goals. It’s better to have a daily routine with it,” Herrera says. “So, yes, if I would have had what we have now, I think I would have really achieved a lot more.”
Herrera says she was too intimidated to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher, though she now hopes to start working at a residential charter school this fall. And she’s only recently started reading for pleasure, hoping to set an example for her girls.
Parents like Christine Chien and Tabatha Herrera hope the strides Texas made this year are just the beginning of reforming a system that spent years shortchanging dyslexic students. Advocates say parents’ voices are powerful, and it’ll be up to them and their communities to make sure schools are implementing the improvements as intended.