As Texas lawmakers debate school vouchers, what about students with disabilities?

A bill at the Legislature would create education savings accounts for students with special education needs.

By Sarah AschApril 20, 2023 10:51 am, ,

As the Texas Legislature debates a voucher-like program that would give families public funds to help pay for private school and other school expenses, supporters face an uphill battle in the House.

But Republican proponents are pitching a number of paths forward with specific cut outs that they hope will win over skeptics, among them a narrow option that would provide education savings accounts only to students with disabilities.

Talia Richman, who reports for the Education Lab at the Dallas Morning News, said there are a lot of passionate people on both sides of this issue.

“On one hand, there are schools like one that I visited in Dallas that exist specifically to serve students with developmental disabilities,” she said. “So they’re really equipped to, you know, not only meet students where they are with core subjects, but also teach skills for independent living and create a really inclusive and welcoming environment.”

Many of the students at the Notre Dame School of Dallas have Down Syndrome or other developmental disabilities, Richman said.

“So parents at those schools, which are costly, say this type of program could really help families who have to commit to caring for their child for an entire lifetime,” she said. “Any money that they save while the child is young can be saved away for later. So they’re very passionate that this could really help families who have children with unique needs and require a unique, very intensive education environment.”

However, Richman said public education advocates and special education lawyers have pointed out that public schools might be a better fit for some students who need special education services.

“Public schools are required to serve all students, unlike private ones, which, of course, can select which students they are willing to admit, and they can say no to children with disabilities, unlike public schools,” Richman said. “When a student leaves a public school, they also can lose some of the federal protections guaranteed to them under law that protect children with disabilities and guarantee them certain rights.”

Public schools are required to conduct certain evaluations for students with disabilities and then carry out individualized education plans — sometimes called IEPs. All this is free to families in a public education setting.

“At the same time, Texas has struggled to provide adequate special education services. The federal government investigated in 2018,” Richman said. “What proponents are also saying is that one of the ways to make a stronger special education program available to all students is to put more funding into that program in public schools. And any education savings account program would be costly. And that’s money that they say could instead be going into a system that benefits all.”

Richman said a bill has been introduced that would give parents of students with disabilities about $7,000 a year toward education expenses.

“That could be going toward private school tuition, transportation, technology, textbooks and then anything left over could be put toward higher education,” she said. “So that is one of several bills that are making their way through the Legislature. And your guess is as good as mine about what will end up becoming a reality at the end of May.”

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