Texas Legislature Second Special Session: How SB 15 Can be More Effective for Texas Students Receiving Special Education Services

The Arc of Texas Leadership & Advocacy Coordinator Wendy Ward provided written testimony to the Senate Education Committee on August 10, 2021, on Senate Bill 15.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on SB 15. I am Wendy Ward, Leadership and Advocacy Coordinator for The Arc of Texas. The Arc of Texas promotes, protects, and advocates for the human rights and self-determination of Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). This includes children with disabilities receiving special education services across the state.

The Arc of Texas appreciates the intent of SB 15 to grant school districts and charter schools the ability to establish and/or continue full-time virtual learning programs for the 2021-2022 school year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This is important legislation considering escalating caseloads throughout Texas, increasing hospitalizations, and downward pressure on our health care systems.
In the Austin hospital regional one, there are fewer than 10 ICU beds available for 2.3 million people. Governor Abbott has issued an Executive Order prohibiting schools from mandating the use of masks, putting students’ health at risk, including students with disabilities who may have underlying conditions and other health concerns. In this context, SB 15 is a welcome development.

However, we feel that a key provision of this bill can be strengthened to ensure critical protections for learners with disabilities. While Section 3, as introduced, cites the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, additional language should be included that refers to accessibility of online services, programs and activities to individuals with disabilities. For example, the needs of individuals who require assistive technology or other accommodations and supports must be addressed. This bill should specify that local programs delivering virtual instruction must comply with federal accessibility requirements.

In addition, there is a provision authorizing a school district or open enrollment charter school to remove a student from online instruction if those institutions determine the student does not meet minimum academic standards. These entities must establish a process by which the student and student’s parents have sufficient notice and opportunity to provide input before the student is removed. This standard should not be applied across the board. Students who receive special education services have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that define their individualized learning goals. We want to ensure this bill takes into account the purpose of their IEPs in the first place. The Arc of Texas believes such cases should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, allowing for the unique circumstances of the child, including students with IDD. A “one size fits all” approach or blanket policy can lead to unintended consequences for students with disabilities, up to and including their exclusion from the online learning they so vitally need.

We would like to thank Chairman Taylor for this legislation and his work to strengthen this bill so that virtual instruction is accessible to ALL students, including students with disabilities, during these challenging times.