Special education, school safety top of mind when it comes to education for 86th legislative session

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As state lawmakers prepare for the upcoming 86th legislative session to begin Jan. 8, local and statewide entities are prioritizing education items for consideration, including school safety, special education and funding needs.

The Texas Education Agency has put forth two items for the upcoming session to improve education in the state: the Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative and Special Education Services Grants.

“These appropriation requests are being made to address needs that should be addressed in the coming biennium,”   said DeEtta Culbertson, TEA media relations and correspondence manager. “It is the intent of TEA to use these appropriations to support the needs, so that the infrastructures are in place to continue this work indefinitely.”

In addition to special education and school safety, Fort Bend ISD officials and local legislators agree overall school funding is also a top priority and at the root of these items.

Although FBISD has hired more teachers at the district level to provide for special education students, the district has to get creative with ways to support students, Tassin said.

“We, even in Fort Bend ISD are seeing the number of [special education]students rise which does provide more funding to the district, but when you’re already underfunded, obviously it increases the burden on the district,” she said.

FBISD will be following property tax caps, Hurricane Harvey funding, the teacher retirement system and bond legislation in the upcoming session, Tassin said.

FBISD’s board of trustees will approve a legislative priorities item during a December board meeting.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she is eager to get to work on addressing public school finance reform. The Texas Commission on Public School Finance will finalize its recommendations to the Legislature at the end of December, Huffman said.

“I am hopeful that the commission’s proposals will include bold and innovative strategies to simultaneously bring high-quality public education to Texas students and property tax reform to taxpayers,” she said.

Although the TEA reports total annual funding has increased 53 percent from $39.6 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 to $60.6 billion in FY 2016-17, Huffman said she recognizes Texas is a growing state, and it is critical to examine the school finance system.

Miller is looking into the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, testing as well as unfunded state mandates. A priority is the teacher retirement system, he said.

“The teacher retirement system is a huge issue because it’s not solvent, and the teacher retirement health care system as well—those are two other big issues that we have to deal with,” Miller said.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who is serving a yearlong jail sentence in Montgomery County on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice, has had 21 bills filed by his chief of staff on his behalf as of Nov. 12. Of these, three are related to education, including free full-day prekindergarten for certain children, salaries for certain professional employees in public schools, and trustee elections for certain school districts.

State Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, has pre-filed House Bill 183 relating to pension revenue enhancements for TRS.

Bill prefiling began Nov. 12 for the upcoming session.

School safety and mental health

In the wake of school shootings taking place across the country, school safety is at the front of legislators’ and district officials’ minds.

“It’s going to be a big topic of discussion in the Legislature,” state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land said. “Once we decide what that action is and what money comes with it to fund it—because the school systems don’t have the money to do that—those are some of the things that we’re working on.”

The TEA is requesting $54.5 million for its Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative grounded in four pillars: Mental Health Supports, Positive School Culture, Facility Safety, and Emergency Response Coordination.

The initiative would provide counseling resources and training for mental health needs in students to prevent violence on campuses. Additionally the initiative would promote character education, suicide prevention, resiliency and antibullying strategies.

“It is with great sadness that I report that episodes of mass school violence have now reached Texas schools,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said in a statement regarding the legislative session. “In response to this tragedy TEA has collaborated with the governor’s office, legislative leadership, regional Education Service Centers, school systems and parents to form our exceptional item request regarding the Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative.”

About $20 million of the requested funds would go toward grants for programs that would provide students on every campus in the state access to behavioral health services, according to TEA’s recommendation.

FBISD’s school safety priorities also focus on mental health and wellness among students, said Kristin Tassin, board member and appointed legislative liaison for the district. Implementing trauma-informed care—a strategy that has been successful in Austin ISD—would provide counselors on campus equipped to intervene immediately when a student is identified as struggling with mental or emotional trauma, Tassin said.

“Trauma and re-traumatization affects the development of the brain, and then there’s a safety factor and a trust factor on the kid’s part,” Miller said.

Although the TEA is requesting funding at the state level for safety in schools, FBISD, in its $992.6 million bond approved by voters Nov. 6, allotted about $15 million for safety and security measures that will be rolled out soon, Tassin said.

The State Board of Education also recommends TEA and the Legislature financially incentivize a multitiered system of support so all students can be identified and connected to support services for behavioral health, mental health, and intrapersonal and interpersonal effectiveness, SBOE Chair Donna Bahorich said.

“With school shootings and the rise of mental health problems being a concern with more students, that’s an area that we felt needed to be [addressed],” Bahorich said. “Typically what happens at schools is you have students get identified by adults as needing special services, and they get an individualized education plan. … These multitiered systems of support for students should be available for all students in a school.”

Special education

After the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter Jan. 11 finding the state of Texas and local education agencies, or school districts, to be out of compliance with provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the state is required to engage in corrective actions.

Already the TEA has added 54 new special education-focused employees in fiscal year 2018-19, Morath said. The agency is also requesting $50.5 million for its Special Education Services Grants item.

“Special education was a big issue, so we’re looking at what must happen there,” Miller said. “I’m glad [TEA] is doing that. I think it’s a great initiative because I think it’s one of those areas in our school systems that’s just been not handled properly, so there’s a lot to be done there.”

FBISD has added several additional special education staff members as well, Tassin said. Tassin, who helped form the TEA’s corrective action plan, said she was not impressed with the finalized plan because it places funding burdens on the district.

“I didn’t feel like it went far enough to be corrective, for one,” she said. “No. 2, all of the funding really was put at the feet of the school districts, which I foresee causing an incredible shortage of funding at the ISD level. Not only are we identifying more students who qualify for special education, as we should be because we were under-identifying in Texas anyway, but we are also having to go back and provide compensatory services, which are costly for students who were not previously provided services.”

Compensatory services include coming up with action plans for students who were not provided necessary services for their education. If a student should have received special education services but did not, then the district is charged with providing more intensive services to fill the gap, Tassin said.

FBISD has seen an increase of about 800 students in special education in the last year, according to the Public Education Information Management System. About 6,700, or 8.82 percent of FBISD’s students are enrolled in special education services—an increase from 4,244 students, or 6.16 percent in the 2010-11 school year.

“As we know, you can never make up for it because a student with a disability who didn’t get what they needed falls further and further behind,” she said.

The TEA is basing its $50.5 million cost estimate on a potential identification gap of up to 180,000 students.

The agency is assuming the compensatory services allocation will cover one year, and each student would receive an average of $5,000 in funding per year, meaning providing services for 10,000 students would cost $50 million.

“While there is a potential to identify up to [180,000 students], many of these students may not require any service that is going to require additional resources,”  Culbertson said. “Many of these children may continue in their existing programming with a slightly enhanced monitoring or their progress. Additionally, many of the additional services that newly identified students may require are already available in the [districts], so there is not an additional cost incurred.”

Local needs

Although FBISD has hired more teachers at the district level to provide for special education students, the district has to get creative with ways to support students, Tassin said.

“We, even in Fort Bend ISD are seeing the number of [special education]students rise which does provide more funding to the district, but when you’re already underfunded, obviously it increases the burden on the district,” she said.

FBISD will be following property tax caps, Hurricane Harvey funding, the teacher retirement system and bond legislation in the upcoming session, Tassin said.

FBISD’s board of trustees will approve a legislative priorities item during a December board meeting.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she is eager to get to work on addressing public school finance reform. The Texas Commission on Public School Finance will finalize its recommendations to the Legislature at the end of December, Huffman said.

“I am hopeful that the commission’s proposals will include bold and innovative strategies to simultaneously bring high-quality public education to Texas students and property tax reform to taxpayers,” she said.

Although the TEA reports total annual funding has increased 53 percent from $39.6 billion in fiscal year 2005-06 to $60.6 billion in FY 2016-17, Huffman said she recognizes Texas is a growing state, and it is critical to examine the school finance system.

Miller is looking into the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, testing as well as unfunded state mandates. A priority is the teacher retirement system, he said.

“The teacher retirement system is a huge issue because it’s not solvent, and the teacher retirement health care system as well—those are two other big issues that we have to deal with,” Miller said.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who is serving a yearlong jail sentence in Montgomery County on misdemeanor charges for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice, has had 21 bills filed by his chief of staff on his behalf as of Nov. 12. Of these, three are related to education, including free full-day prekindergarten for certain children, salaries for certain professional employees in public schools, and trustee elections for certain school districts.

State Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, has pre-filed House Bill 183 relating to pension revenue enhancements for TRS.

Bill prefiling began Nov. 12 for the upcoming session.

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Beth Marshall
Born and raised in Montgomery County, Beth Marshall graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communication and a minor in business. Originally hired as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in 2016, she became editor of the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition in October 2017.
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