AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Advocates worry Texas could be on the hook for millions of dollars at the expense of students with disabilities.
Our partners at the Texas Tribune reported on Friday that the state could owe the federal government $223 million — including an estimated $111.6 million that the state may have to pay back for failing to spend it on kids with disabilities during this fiscal year.
"We were shocked by the revelation that more money is at stake for Texas then was first expected," said Steven Aleman, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. "This has been a brewing court case and to learn now that much, much more money is owed to the federal government is shocking and disappointing."
Leaders at the Texas Education Agency are in talks with the feds and state lawmakers to correct the financial discrepancies.
"The primary objective of the discussions in progress is to ensure that special education services for students are not negatively impacted," agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said by email.
According to Aleman, advocates want lawmakers to "consider a budget amendment that would allocate the extra dollars in state funds that are needed to cover the loss of federal aid for students with disabilities."
Parents like Anna Smith joined administrators and a bipartisan group of lawmakers at a press conference Thursday morning.
"It is immoral that one of the most prosperous states in the most prosperous country is not able to provide an adequate education for our kids," Smith, a mother of four and a PTA president in Leander ISD, said. Two of her kids are involved in special education programs.
"We knew going in we were ready for battle but we didn’t know it was going to be this hard," Smith said after the press conference.
Beyond the remedies to the funding miscues, some lawmakers called for even more money for students with special needs.
"This is not just a special education issue this is an education issue that affects all of our students," State Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) said Thursday.
"Education is not a luxury, it is the right of every child in our state," Meyer said in a statement prior to the press conference. "It is critical that we fully fund special education to ensure that every child is allowed the education they deserve. It is the right thing to do for our kids, our families, and our state's future."
State Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso) called the special education funding situation a "crisis."
"When the state fails to adequately fund special education, it affects all of our students and the entire state," González said in a statement. "This situation is truly a crisis, and we must treat it with the urgency and attention that it warrants."
"If we are not funding this area we're hurting all kids and hurting our state," González said Thursday morning.
Aleman said more attention should be paid to students with special needs in the overarching umbrella conversations in the legislature about public school finance.
"Students with disabilities deserve their fair share," Aleman said. "If we don’t find a solution this year, this month, then this becomes an annual ongoing issue with the federal government, where the state of Texas is not following federal law for students with disabilities."
Austin Democrat Donna Howard added that some lawmakers are preparing to act this session. Additional changes to House spending would happen in conference committee, when select lawmakers from both chambers negotiate details from the versions of the budget that passed their respective chamber.
"We still have time, we are running out, but we still have time in the conference committee," Howard said. "Until that ink is dry, we have some room to do some things."
The craftsman behind the House's school finance plan, Education Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) said the work to provide more services for students with special needs in Texas is ongoing.
"I am proud of the work we have done on special education and the additional funding we included in our House Bill 3," Huberty said in a statement through a spokesperson. "We understand there is still more work to be done, but this is a first step in ensuring that every Texas student receives the education they deserve."
The press conference can be viewed on the Texas House video website.
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