Though equal access and civil rights don’t seem very popular with the Trump administration, the Department of Education recently ruled that Texas denied disabled students their right to an education.
The verdict was an important victory not just for students within the state, but also those living elsewhere. Civil rights laws are only truly effective if they’re enforced, and states considering moves similar to those seen in Texas will be reconsidering in light of this decision.
Here’s what happened: Texas effectively instituted a quota on disability education services — sometimes known as special education. The state decided that up to 8.5 percent of enrolled students could receive services, even though the nationwide average suggests that 13 percent — and sometimes more — of school-age children have disabilities that might require accommodation and support.
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As a result, some students who were legally entitled to such services by the nature of their disabilities were instead denied. This goes against the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which says states must provide a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE) for disabled students.
For disabled people, the right to education wasn’t always enshrined in the law. Historically, some people with significant developmental, intellectual and cognitive disabilities simply weren’t sent to school at all, or were isolated and denied services at school. With a series of civil rights laws specifically addressing education rights, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, states gradually came to understand that every child needs an education — and that includes disabled children.
This means that schools have to be physically accessible so that wheelchair users can get to class and learn; they must provide curricula in formats accessible to d/Deaf and blind or low-vision students; they must accommodate students who need extra test-taking time or tutoring; they must make room for personal assistants or aides if students need them; and much, much more. Schools are provided with funding to meet these needs, though it can be insufficient.
Texas is far from the only state with a deeply flawed approach to integrating disabled students. Across the country, states and individual counties and districts struggle to provide disabled students with the education they’re entitled to. This isn’t necessarily malicious, as many are dealing with poor funding and other obstacles, but it can seriously affect the lives of disabled people.
Disabled people, including children, are more likely to be poor, and this makes it harder for their families to fight back and secure rights — parents might not be able to afford an attorney to sue the school district, or have the capacity to pick up and move to a more inclusive district.
What’s remarkable about this decision is that it emerged from the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos, who’s no friend to disability rights. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos made it clear that she wasn’t even familiar with the legal requirements surrounding disability education. She’s also heavily pushing the use of school vouchers, and rescinded guidance on educating parents about the potential disability-related ramifications of using a voucher program. Private schools aren’t subject to the same accommodation requirements as public schools, so withdrawing a disabled student from public education can have unexpected consequences.
Some disability rights advocates are hopeful that this may be a sign the Department of Education is committed to upholding the law, and that as DeVos settles in at the department, perhaps she’ll get more familiar with disability issues. While this 15-month investigation may have started during the Obama era, she could have taken it in a number of directions, and this very serious outcome is heartening for disabled students in Texas, and across the country.
The Texas governor and education commissioner have both said they intend to take prompt action to address the shortcomings identified by the Department of Education. Educators, parents and students will be keeping a close eye to determine if that pledge carries weight.