AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Supporters of Texas’ education savings accounts proposal argue state money could allow special needs students to access schools catered to their unique learning abilities, while critics worry a state-subsidized tuition program would further neglect services in underfunded public schools.
Lawmakers and stakeholders on each side of the debate agree: special needs students are not well-served by the current state of public schools’ special needs programs.
Texas Academic Performance Reports show just 11% of students with disabilities were college ready in 2020, compared to 53% of all students. That’s a slight increase over 2018, when just 7.2% of students with disabilities were college ready.
At the end of 2022, The Texas Commission on Special Education Funding recommended an overhaul of the Texas Education Agency’s special education funding model — transitioning from a per-student funding model to one based on the intensity of needs.
This legislative session, lawmakers are now considering whether educations savings accounts may better serve special needs students by allowing them to leave public schools and find uniquely-tailored private schools. Disability rights advocates, however, worry private schools don’t offer families the same affordability, availability, or accountability.
House Bill 1, the legislature’s massive package for public school funding and education savings accounts, would offer families $10,500 per child. That’s about 75% of what the state gives public schools per student.
“This voucher program is just going to cut the legs out of the public school funding. We don’t need another drain on the money pool that we have,” Executive Director of the Autism Society of Texas Jacquie Benestante said. “[A voucher] sounds great in theory, it really does… But I don’t think they realize the high cost of how much private schools really cost.”
The Education Data Initiative reports the average Texas private school costs $10,400 per year. But special education institutions can charge much more. High quality schools for autistic students around Austin can cost $25,000 to $45,000, Benestante said.
Allen Parker, a former education law professor and current president of The Justice Foundation, argues education savings accounts will expand options and give many families new opportunities.
“There are many, many, many [affordable] schools, and more schools could be created,” Parker said. “The beauty is two options is always better than one. But if you have the one and all the money goes to you, you might not like two options. But for the parents, it’s great.”
While public schools are spread across every part of Texas, specialized schools for disabled students are concentrated in the big cities. An analysis by The Texas Tribune found there are only 67 private schools that offer special education programs in Texas, and 82% of them are in the most-populated urban areas.
Families in many rural and less-populated areas do not have access to any nearby special education services — other than their neighborhood public school.
Even families next door to a special education private school may have difficulty accessing it, as private schools are entitled to turn away students for various problems that public schools are required to address.
“That’s the biggest concern for us as an autism organization is the discrimination that parents and families face because we know they were taken out of school,” Benestante said. “Or if they’re taken, a lot of times they don’t have disability protections, their federal disability rights aren’t guaranteed, and private schools are allowed to just kick them right back out again.”
“I don’t think that this is a good program at all, especially not for kids with special needs,” one mother of an autistic child in Austin Independent School District told Nexstar. “We looked into one private school — they didn’t even have a program for kids that have autism.”
The federal government sets minimum standards for special education in public schools. If parents are not satisfied with their child’s care, they can find recourse through complaint and appeals processes outlined by the state. Private schools are not subject to the same standards.
“They’re losing their disability rights. They are losing all of their rights to education. The private schools don’t have to provide any support,” Benestante said. “I don’t think parents understand all of the protections they have in public schools and their right to due process. And so when things aren’t going well, there’s recourse. In private school, there’s nothing.”
The House’s latest plan would subject ESA recipients to academic accountability, but that is separate from special needs services. Under HB 1, all students who accept a voucher will need to perform satisfactorily on the STAAR or another standardized assessment. If they fail that test for two consecutive years, they lose the money.
Benestante and other disability rights advocates wish the state would invest the ESA money into public special education.
“This voucher program is just going to cut the legs out of the public school funding. We don’t need another drain on the money pool that we have,” she said.
HB 1 does significantly increase funding for special education, adopting all of the Special Education Funding Commission’s recommendations for funding changes while adding an additional $750 million.
If it passes, children will be eligible for $10,500 education savings accounts prioritized by need — with disabled children in low-income families first in line.