Angela Garvin has spent months fighting for teachers to get training on how to communicate with her son Marcus, who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal. She argues that all the adults who interact with her 7-year-old should learn how to use his speech device and should get basic sign language training in case that device malfunctions.

Over the last few months, the Killeen mom-turned-advocate has been calling her state representatives regularly and going to the Capitol to attend hearings, but she isn’t optimistic that elected officials will improve daily life for her son.

“I don’t expect much when it comes to special education here from them,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between what happens in the Capitol and in the classroom.”

Advocates for kids with disabilities just saw a key bill fly through both chambers, which would stop the state from capping special education services at 8.5 percent of students – an issue that got Texas in hot water with the federal government before the session began. The Texas House voted Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 160, authored by Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and sponsored in the lower chamber by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston.

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That bill will go to Gov. Greg Abbott for a signature.

But advocates are much less certain about a slate of smaller bills that are not so flashy, but which they say could dramatically improve the way schools educate students with disabilities.

"This session presented itself with a big opportunity not just to address that issue legislatively but also to take hopefully some other advances for students with disabilities," said Steve Aleman, policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas.

The organization is advocating for bills that would help students who had reportedly been left behind after the Texas Education Agency allegedly capped special education services, instead of providing them to all students with disabilities, a story broken by the Houston Chronicle last year. The agency has denied this claim.

"We still think there's more to be done," Aleman said. "We probably have the most number of bills still alive at this point in time" for kids with disabilities.

A few pieces of legislation, such as Senate Bill 748, recently sent to the House, would beef up services for students with disabilities who are ready to graduate from high school. House Bill 61, recently referred to the Senate Education Committee, would provide academic recognition districts for properly identifying special needs students and providing them with services.

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Senate Bill 529, authored by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, could help parents like Garvin by requiring all educators to get training on teaching students with disabilities before they can be certified. Advocates say this could help all teachers, including those already certified.

Austin-area educator Alyssa Potasznik said she was hired as a special education teacher without in-depth training on many aspects of her job, including how to accommodate students’ specialized education plans tailored to their specific disabilities. She ended up learning on the job from her peers.

"Anything that gives more teachers more training is a good thing," she said. And she said the training would especially help teachers of general education classrooms, since many students with disabilities are integrated with other kids.

The most basic thing schools have been asking for is money. But the Legislature is not in a spending mood this session, with less general revenue available to spend than the previous session.

“Unless the Legislature decides to change the way it funds schools, it’s only going to get worse,” said Potasznik, who is also an advocate with new grassroots group Texans for Special Education Reform.

The House’s major school finance bill, House Bill 21, which would have included extra funding for students with dyslexia, is not expected to go far in the Senate. The Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on HB 21 Thursday morning. Because the House has refused to budge on the Senate’s major education priority, private school tuition subsidies, the money for dyslexic students appears to be approaching a stalemate.

“A lot of tit for tat goes on,” said Janna Lilly, director of governmental relations for the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. She has advocated for other special education bills that have a low chance of passing because they require more money.

Funding for schools is "based on an antiquated formula" that is especially detrimental to students with disabilities, she said.

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Lilly is also hoping some legislation for special education will stay dead.

Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, pitched a bill that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling expenses just for students with disabilities. It got lukewarm reception in the House Public Education Committee and has not been voted on. House members, including top education leader Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, have shown clearly that they do not support private school tuition subsidies in any form.

Lilly testified against Simmons' bill at the House Public Education hearing, since private schools are not required to serve students with disabilities under state and federal law.

Simmons said that bill is likely dead, but he is hoping to attach portions of it as amendments on other bills.

"I think if I can get an amendment on the floor, I think it definitely has a chance of passing," he said. "I'm looking for bills to take a ride. Anything that gives me a chance."

Last week, he tried and failed to pitch an amendment that would have allowed autistic students to use a grant program to subsidize private school tuition. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, caught it, and started a line of questioning that ultimately caused Simmons to withdraw the amendment.

“I’ve chained myself to my desk because some of my very dear friends, I don’t trust when they’re up on the microphone,” Gooden said. "I campaigned very heavily in my Republican primary ... against any taxpayer funds being spent on private schools and diverted from public education."

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • House Bill 1335 by Rep. Ron Simmons would give students with disabilities online accounts of state money to use for private school tuition and certain homeschooling expenses, such as textbooks and curricula.
  • Rio Grande Valley parents and educators told federal and state officials Tuesday that school districts lacked knowledge and resources to get students special education services that comply with federal law.

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