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Texas doesn't fund special education enough — and it's hurting districts' pockets

Dylan Rafaty, a disability inclusion advocate, listens to the Plano ISD board discuss budget concerns for closing four schools Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.
Yfat Yossifor
Dylan Rafaty, a disability inclusion advocate, listens to the Plano ISD board discuss budget concerns for closing four schools Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.

Shawnda Kracja doesn’t want her daughter to be known as “the deaf kid.”

Kracja’s daughter is an incoming third grader at Davis Elementary, which has hosted a regional day school program for the deaf and hard of hearing for decades. But the other deaf and hard of hearing students at Davis will be moving to Harrington Elementary for the 2025-2026 school year. The Plano ISD board of trustees recently voted to close Davis and three other schools, citing budget concerns.

Plano is one of many school districts in Texas faced with hard decisions because of funding shortfalls. Disability advocates say special education funding in Texas falls short by about $2 billion — leaving school districts to foot the bill. And even wealthy districts are struggling to come up with the missing funds.

More Texas students are enrolling in special education. Texas had a cap of about 8.5% for special education enrollment until 2018. Now that the cap has been removed, Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said more students are enrolling in special education services.

Special education students cost more to teach, which Aleman said should mean the state would provide districts extra funds to supplement the added expense. Districts do typically get extra money for special education from state and federal dollars. But Aleman said the amount of money districts get from the state for special education isn’t enough to meet the growing need.

“There's a shortfall or a gap between what districts are spending, that is what it cost collectively to educate students with disabilities, and what the state is taking responsibility for,” he said.

Aleman said the shortfall amounts to about $2 billion. On top of that, schools in Texas lost $300 million in federal special education funds late last year. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission lost an appeal to a federal audit that found it was overbilling Medicaid for special education services.

Aleman said the loss of that federal check on top of the funding gap from the state hurts districts’ pocketbooks.

“Those federal and state reimbursements are just not keeping up,” he said.

Community Integration

Liz Whitaker isn’t deaf. But the incoming fourth-grader has learned some sign language.

“So I could communicate more with my friends,” Whitaker said.

Kracja said the inclusive culture at Davis makes a difference for her daughter.

“My daughter is just one of the girls,” she said. “They don't see her as, ‘oh, that's the deaf kid.’”

Kracja said it took years to build that campus culture — and moving the program to Harrington means starting over.

It’s not just about the students. Kracja said the teachers at Davis are accustomed to the needs of deaf and hard of hearing students. Some of them have ASL interpreters. Others have a hearing aid or a cochlear implant that connects to a microphone their teacher wears.

Sarah Wainscott, an assistant professor of deaf education at Texas Women’s University, said it will be an adjustment for teachers at Harrington who haven’t worked with deaf and hard of hearing children. And Wainscott said having a teacher who understands the varying needs of deaf and hard of hearing students makes a difference.

“Having a teacher that knows those things intuitively based on experience is a game changer,” she said.

Parents react as the Plano ISD board votes to close four schools, including Davis Elementary, during a special session Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.
Yfat Yossifor
Parents react as the Plano ISD board votes to close four schools, including Davis Elementary, during a special session Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.

Higher Costs

There’s extra money allocated in the state budget for regional day programs like the one at Davis Elementary. Districts who contribute dollars can send students to the nearby location that meets their needs if they don’t have a program. The special education funding those students receive follows them to the district they attend for the day school program.

Aleman said in theory, that money should be enough to fund the day school program and provide for the deaf and hard of hearing students’ educational needs.

“That’s not the reality,” he said. “They are shortchanged, just like all other students with disabilities in the state.”

There aren’t many students who are deaf or hard of hearing. About two to three out of 1,000 children in the country are born with detectable hearing loss according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. That’s why the program at Davis Elementary serves so many districts.

But Wainscott said teaching students who are deaf or hard of hearing is pricier.

“Our tech has gotten better and better and better, but it's also got more and more expensive,” she said.

Plano ISD said closing the schools was a difficult but necessary financial decision. The district has had a growing budget deficit since 2017. Plano’s chief financial officer, Johnny Hill, said at the meeting that closing these campuses will save the district about $5.2 million annually. Other savings include a one-time $20.1 million capital expenditure reduction and avoiding the cost of rebuilding the four campuses, which would’ve cost at least $340 million. The four schools were all built during the 1970s.

Plano ISD is in an area with a lot of property wealth — but it doesn’t get to keep all of the property tax dollars it collects. The state sets a certain amount of money school districts get per student. It’s called the basic allotment. It’s about $6,160 per student. Special education students typically receive extra dollars through an additional allotment.

Any extra money Plano ISD collects gets sent to the Texas Education Agency to be redistributed to districts with less property wealth.

The basic allotment hasn’t gone up since 2019. But Plano ISD Superintendent Dr. Theresa Williams said at a recent school board meeting that inflation has increased the district’s expenses.

“From compensating our employees to the rising cost of construction to the cost of materials, resources, insurance, shield, utilities, the cost of doing business today can't adequately be done with 2019 budget dollars,” Williams said.

There was a bill in the Texas House during the last legislative session that would’ve raised the basic allotment. Aleman said the bill also included changes to the state’s special education funding formula, something he said Disability Rights Texas championed. He said the current formula is overly complex and outdated.

The bill didn’t move forward after the House passed amendment to remove school voucher funding from the bill. Gov. Greg Abbott said he would veto any education funding legislation that didn’t include money for what he refers to as ‘school choice.’

Aleman said Abbott’s political differences over vouchers killed the bill.

“If he didn't get that, then nothing was going to pass about school funding,” Aleman said.

Parents react as the Plano ISD board votes to close four schools, including Davis Elementary, during a special session Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.
Yfat Yossifor
Parents react as the Plano ISD board votes to close four schools, including Davis Elementary, during a special session Monday, June 10, 2024, in Plano.

Far-Reaching Problem

Plano ISD isn’t alone in its struggles. School districts in Irving and Richardson also recently closed schools because of declining enrollment. Less kids in the classroom means less money from the state and more empty desks. Hill said that too many open seats at schools is inefficient — the schools can’t offer certain programs because there aren’t enough participants, and the district ends up paying for more facilities than it needs.

Plano ISD’s enrollment has gone down by 7,700 students the past 12 years. And Hill said it’s projected to keep declining by over 3,000 students the next five years. There are about 18,000 open seats in Plano schools right now. Hill said if the district doesn’t do anything, that’ll go up to 21,500 open seats.

“That’s just not sustainable over time,” he said.

Closing the campuses was an emotional moment. Parents wearing Davis Elementary shirts walked out of the school board meeting in tears after the trustees voted unanimously to close the four campuses.

Even the school board president, Nancy Humphrey, shed a tear.

“I’m sorry,” Humphrey said as got choked up ahead of the board’s vote. “I’m human.”

They’re thinking of kids like Liz Whitaker.

“I don’t think that we should shut down Davis because we have an amazing community of a lot of amazing people,” Whitaker said.

But as expenses increase and funding stays stagnant, school districts will have to continue to face tough choices — even wealthy districts like Plano ISD.

Dylan M. Rafaty, the president and CEO of the North Texas Disability Chamber, said he understands parents’ concerns about closing Davis Elementary. But Rafaty, who’s deaf in his right ear and partially deaf in his left ear, said the rest of the world isn’t as inclusive as Davis.

“I'm encouraging those parents to understand that as you integrate into society, it becomes more challenging,” Rafaty said.

The Plano West graduate said he’s confident the district will do everything possible to ease the transition for families at Davis. And he said the best way to rebuild the culture at Davis is for deaf and hard of hearing students to learn to advocate for themselves.

“We want to be a part of our community,” Rafaty said. “We want to be engaged. We just need the support from those around us to understand and welcome us and accept us.”

Copyright 2024 KERA

Caroline Love