Will special education debates open the way for school vouchers in Texas? | #specialneeds | #kids


Texas lawmakers want a better way to educate students with disabilities, but will they turn to voucher-like programs to do so?

A committee’s recent debate on expanding micro-grants and other school-choice options could foreshadow the anticipated fight over school vouchers.

The Texas Commission on Special Education Funding recently discussed draft recommendations that include expanding a program that awards families of students with special needs one-time grants to use toward education services, such as tutoring or therapy. Supporters called the grants “one step away” from voucher-like efforts.

This month the commission heard testimony on whether Texas should create education savings accounts for students with disabilities. Such accounts give parents public funds directly to pay for private school tuition or for other education expenses.

More than a dozen speakers  — including researchers, lobbyists, advocates and parents — spoke during the hearing that lasted more than five hours.

Many touted the success of similar programs in other states while others passionately warned the special commission on the negative impacts voucher-like initiatives can have when they divert funding from public schools.

Many private schools could make room for students with education savings accounts, said Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Associations.

“There are many parents desperate for this option,” Colangelo told lawmakers.

Texas has more than 900 accredited private or independent schools and about 800 serve students with disabilities in some capacity, Colangelo noted. About 50 schools are designed specifically for students with disabilities, such as Shelton School in Dallas, Hill School of Fort Worth or The Briarwood School in Houston.

What does school choice look like in Texas?

Education savings accounts are one type of school choice program — similar to school vouchers or tax credit scholarships — that are funded by public tax dollars. Such programs vary on who directly receives the funds but typically allow families to pay for private school tuition.

Proponents argue they give more students access to high-quality private schools or educational settings tailored to their needs. At least 10 states have some sort of voucher or ESA program.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of ExcelinEd in Action — the lobbying arm of the Florida-based pro-school choice organization — told The Dallas Morning News that 2021 was the “year of school choice” as multiple programs launched or expanded last year.

She predicts that the push for more options for students will continue amid ongoing calls from parents for more control over their children’s education.

Texas lawmakers have already filed several bills that could create voucher-like programs ahead of January’s legislative session and many, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have campaigned on the increased appetite.

But public education advocates are gearing up for a fight.

Even disability advocates are split on whether programs specifically targeted to students with special needs are the best use of tax dollars.

During last week’s hearing, Steve Aleman, a senior policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas, raised concerns about the lack of protections for students with disabilities in private schools.

“The loss of legal rights once a student with a disability leaves a public school for a private school because of an education savings account is a significant concern,” Aleman wrote in comments submitted to the commission ahead of his testimony.

Private and religious schools are not subject to federally mandated protections that lay out what services schools must provide students.

Programs that divert public dollars to private schools could also decrease the amount of special education funding in public schools, Aleman added.

“Any benefit for an individual student must be weighed by the impact on the state system and all students with disabilities,” he wrote.

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education, critiqued evidence cited by those pushing the school choice options..

“While voucher advocates are still trying to muddy the waters, there is zero question about these recent studies among voucher researchers who are not advocates,” Welner said, citing studies of such programs in Louisiana and Ohio. Researchers looked at whether student achievement improved when they went to private school and found that math performance dropped.

“The adoption or expansion of voucher policies cannot be justified as a way to improve these academic outcomes for students,” he said.

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Cara Candal, policy managing director of ExcelinEd, pointed to the success of Florida’s school choice programs, established in the 1990s.

ExcelinEd, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and its affiliated political action committee hosts the National Summit on Education and has funneled millions of dollars to school choice advocacy efforts in other states.

“They can create more robust and diverse landscapes of both public and private providers,” said Candal, citing studies in Florida that found an increase in the number of private schools and alternative options available across the state, including in rural areas, as vouchers became more available. “When an ESA exists, more providers crop up to meet the needs of students.”

The special education commission’s preliminary recommendations for funding changes include allocating more funding to schools per student based on their specific needs, paying for educators to become certified in special education and covering portions of their salaries. The commission recommended using grant funds to help nonprofits and others offer services to students outside of school.

It also recommends the state increase funding for the micro-grant, or the Supplementary Special Education Services, program to $46 million per year and extend it beyond the current 2023-24 expiration.

The current program was established in 2020 to provide $1,500 micro-grants to students with special needs impacted by the pandemic. It was funded by $30 million in federal coronavirus relief aid.

Lawmakers who serve on the committee were split on the push for full-on vouchers though. In many instances, special education-specific school choice programs have paved the way for broader pushes.

During last week’s hearing, Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, asked panelists what lawmakers should take into consideration as they draft policy, while Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, praised the potential competition vouchers could inspire as a way to improve all schools.

Lawmakers are poised to have a $27-billion budget surplus to consider allocating this legislative session, but vouchers aren’t the only costly item up for consideration even where education is concerned.

As some call for vouchers, school districts are asking for more funding for safety initiatives in the wake of the Uvalde massacre and are trying to tackle teacher shortages, learning loss and student mental and emotional health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.



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