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November 17, 2003

State funding for deaf stalls as need grows

From: Fort Worth Star Telegram, TX - Nov 17, 2003

By Neil Strassman Star -Telegram Staff Writer

ARLINGTON - Technological advances have greatly helped education programs for those who are deaf, but state funding for regional day programs in public schools is stalled, state educators say.

State spending on the largest program for children who are deaf has remained constant at $33.1 million for eight years, but the number of students needing the specialized education has grown by 12 percent, state records show.

"The number of students served has definitely increased over the years," said Sha Cowan, Texas Education Agency director of services for those who are deaf. "The districts have received less per pupil each school year that the student population has increased."

Initially, the majority of the state's deaf students were educated either at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, a residential school founded in 1856, or in a handful of programs in large Texas counties, Cowan said.

But in 1974, the Legislature authorized the Regional Day School Program for the Deaf, a specialized public school program that provided $2,700 per student. In that program, students are educated on regular public school campuses and have access to specially trained teachers and interpreters, special equipment and peers with similar disabilities.

In 1989, the state appropriated $27.4 million annually for 3,854 students. Two years later the amount rose to $28.1 million for 4,032 students. The last funding increase was in 1995, to serve 4,073 students. The program now serves 4,619 students.

The money pays for teachers, interpreters and speech therapists, and is used for educational materials, technology and other needs, Cowan said. Infants and toddlers are served in their homes by teachers who work with the child and family on communication and language development.

Students from smaller districts can access programs run by larger districts. When possible, services are centralized at one school.

A good example is Waverly Park Elementary, where roughly 60 of the school's 200 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students have hearing impairments, said Lisa Stewart, Fort Worth's regional day school program coordinator.

Students who do not need specialized instruction may be "mainstreamed" in a regular classroom, possibly with an interpreter, note-taker or with an assistive listening device, educators said.

Parents and a local committee of educators meet annually to assess each student's needs and objectives and to determine the type of class that best fits the student, with a goal of providing the least restrictive environment, Cowan said.

State education officials have asked for additional funding "a couple of times" but have not received it, she said.

"It is frustrating and a major concern," said Terri Dennett Gonzalez, an instructor at Texas Christian University's deaf education program and the former director of Fort Worth's deaf education program.

State legislators, for the most part, are not aware that five professionals -- such as a speech language pathologist and an audiologist -- may be required to meet the educational needs of one child who is deaf, Gonzalez said.

"The cost is monumental and there is a lot of ignorance on the part of Legislature," she said. "They think the only deaf education program is the one at the state residential school in Austin."

As of 2003, there were 7,723 students with hearing impairments in Texas under age 21, according to the state's Public Education Information Management System, and an additional 478 at the state school.

© 2003 Star Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.