Texas lawmakers want a better way to educate students with disabilities, but will they turn to coupon-like programs to do so?
A committee’s recent debate on expanding micro-scholarships and other school choices may foreshadow the expected scramble over school vouchers.
The Texas Commission on Special Education Funding recently discussed draft recommendations that include expanding a program that provides one-time grants to families of special needs students to use for educational services such as tutoring or therapy. Proponents called the grants “a step away” from coupon-like efforts.
This month, the commission heard testimony about whether Texas should create educational savings accounts for students with disabilities. Such accounts give public funds directly to parents to pay for private school tuition or other educational expenses.
More than a dozen speakers — including researchers, lobbyists, attorneys and parents — spoke during the hearing, which lasted more than five hours.
Many touted the success of similar programs in other states, while others passionately warned the task force about the negative impact coupon-like initiatives can have when diverting funds 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 a lot of parents who are desperate for that option,” Colangelo told lawmakers.
Texas has more than 900 accredited private or independent schools, and about 800 serve students with disabilities in some way, Colangelo noted. About 50 schools are specially designed for students with disabilities, such as the Shelton School in Dallas, the Hill School in Fort Worth or the Briarwood School in Houston.
Education savings accounts are a type of school choice program — similar to school vouchers or tax credit scholarships — that are funded by public tax dollars. Such programs vary depending on who receives the funds directly, but typically allow families to pay private school tuition.
Proponents argue they allow more students access to quality private schools or educational institutions tailored to their needs. At least 10 states have some form 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 is the “year of school choice” as several programs launched or have been expanded.
She predicts that the push for more choice for students will continue amid continuing demands from parents for more control over their children’s education.
The Texas legislature already tabled several bills that could create coupon-like programs ahead of the January legislature, and many, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, have campaigned for the increased appetite.
But advocates of public education are arming themselves for battle.
Even disability advocates are divided on whether programs specifically targeting students with special needs are the best use of taxpayers’ money.
During last week’s hearing, Steve Aleman, a senior disability rights policy specialist in Texas, raised concerns about the lack of protection 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 on an education savings account is a significant concern,” Aleman wrote in comments submitted to the commission before his testimony.
Private and religious schools are not subject to federally mandated safeguards that outline what services schools must provide to students.
Programs that divert public funds to private schools could also reduce the amount of special education funding in public schools, Aleman added.
“Any benefit to an individual student must be weighed against the impact on the state system and on all students with disabilities,” he wrote.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education, criticized the evidence cited by those pushing school choices.
“While coupon advocates are still trying to muddy the waters, there is no doubt about these recent studies among non-promoter coupon researchers,” Welner said, citing studies of such programs in Louisiana and Ohio. Researchers looked at whether students’ performance improved when they attended a private school and found that math performance decreased.
“The adoption or extension of voucher policies cannot be justified to improve these academic outcomes for students,” he said.
Cara Candal, ExcelinEd’s Policy Managing Director, noted the success of Florida’s school choice programs introduced 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 allocated millions of dollars to school choice advocacy efforts in other states.
“You can create more robust and diverse landscapes of both public and private providers,” Candal said, citing studies in Florida that found an increase in the number of private schools and alternative options statewide, including in rural areas, as coupons become more available. “When an ESA exists, more vendors emerge to meet student needs.”
The Special Education Commission’s tentative recommendations for changes to funding include allocating more funding to schools on a per-student basis based on their specific needs, paying educators for certification in special education, and covering portions of their salaries. The commission recommended using grant funds to help nonprofits and others provide out-of-school services for students.
It also recommends increasing state funding of the micro-scholarship or Supplementary Special Education Services program to $46 million per year and extending it beyond the current 2023-24 expiration.
The current program was established in 2020 to provide a $1,500 micro-scholarship to students with special needs affected by the pandemic. It was funded with $30 million in federal coronavirus relief assistance.
But lawmakers serving on the committee have been divided over the push for full coupons. In many cases, special education-specific school choice programs have paved the way for broader initiatives.
During last week’s hearing, Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, asked panelists what lawmakers should consider when drafting policies, while Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, hailed the potential competition coupons, which are seen as a way to improve everyone could serve schools.
Lawmakers are poised to have a $27 billion budget surplus to consider for this legislature’s allocation, but vouchers aren’t the only costly element being considered, even when it comes to education.
While some are calling for vouchers, in the wake of the Uvalde massacre, school districts are demanding more funding for safety initiatives and trying to address teacher shortages, learning losses and student mental and emotional health issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and discussion of pressing educational 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 Education Lab’s journalism.