*Correction appended

The state would start paying for special needs students to change schools if they aren't being adequately helped under a bill before lawmakers Tuesday. But critics worry that setting up an escape hatch may make it easier for schools to duck their responsibilities to students who require individualized help.

Sponsored by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, House Bill 279 would expand what are known as "public education grants," which let students at schools determined as persistently low-performing to transfer to better schools. Under the measure, any K-12 student who is eligible for a special education program and has an individualized education program (IEP) would become eligible for the grants. 

"The current PEG system is set up for parents to have a choice," said Simmons, speaking to the House Public Education Committee. "This bill will allow special needs families to meet their child's unique needs.”

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The expansion would cost $4.5 million and would, according to Simmons, allow for transfers in cases where it is "fiscally impossible" for school districts to provide the tools necessary for special needs students. He added that receiving schools, as is currently the case under the PEG system, would be paid a bonus for receiving the child. 

Barbi Beard-Wolfe, the mother of a son with Down syndrome, testified in favor of the bill but expressed concerns: "What is the accountability for the exiting school?" she asked. "We don't want them to simply tell their students to leave, rather than improve their programs."

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, wondered the same thing. "All of us want our kids with different abilities to have access to education," she said. "But are we creating a pathway by which schools would not prioritize special needs students?"

These sentiments were echoed by Rona Statman, the director of family support services at the Arc of Texas, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "Policywise, it could send a message that we can't provide services to every kid, when law says we must provide services to every kid. A school cannot say, 'We can't provide that.'"

Committee members also wondered how students would get to other schools. Currently, the receiving district does not have any responsibility to provide transportation in the PEG program, but for a student with an IEP, the receiving district could be required to arrange for transportation, depending on the details agreed upon in the plan.

Justin Yancy, a member of the Texas Business Leadership Council, testified in favor, emphasizing that better education for all students would benefit Texas in the long run. "We believe it provides an opportunity for a student to become better prepared," Yancy told the panel. "This is a piece of what we can do to make our state more competitive."

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Ted Melina Raab, who testified against the bill, said "the basic problem with HB 279 is that it doesn't address what we need to ensure that all students with special needs get an appropriate education." Representing Texas AFT, a teachers union, he added that they "believe the best way to deal with individual cases is through the proper application of the system in place."

Under Texas law, the receiving school in the PEG program does reserve the option to turn down transfer students, so long as the decision is not made on the basis of a student’s race, ethnicity, academic achievement, athletic abilities, language proficiency, sex or socioeconomic status. The proposed legislation would add disability to this list, prohibiting schools from rejecting a transfer student based on special needs. 

Currently, the Texas Education Agency estimates that only 0.7 percent of all eligible students take advantage of the PEG program. The bill was left pending.

Correction: The name of an Arc of Texas official was originally misspelled. She is Rona Statman, not Ronda.

Disclosure: The Texas Business Leadership Council and Texas AFT are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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