Families of some students with disabilities may be eligible for $1,500 per child in aid to use toward services including tutoring, therapy and digital resources, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency said Wednesday.
The Supplementary Special Education Services program is intended to offset pandemic-related learning disruptions, officials said.
"This program is a win for Texas families and children with special education needs, many of whom have endured education disruptions due to COVID-19," Abbott said in a statement.
When schools shuttered in the spring, many families were left to manage their children’s learning and seek out special services, like therapy, on their own. Many parents said their children missed out on essential services as schools struggled to adapt students’ individual learning plans to a virtual world.
The aid can only be used to buy services and resources from TEA-approved vendors. Families will be able to make purchases, with no upfront cost, through an online portal that will launch later in the year. Parents have until Jan. 31, 2022 to use the funds. The state will not retroactively pay for expenses.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators opposed the program in a Thursday statement, calling it "strikingly similar" to voucher-like privatization proposals long rejected by state lawmakers. The group said that the voucher-like programs allow parents of kids with disabilities to use the assistance to leave the public system for private schools or homeschooling.
“Not only does this action ignore the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers, but also it denies public schools access to this $30 million allocation," Shannon Holmes, the association's executive director said in a statement. "Public schools are better positioned to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.”
Families can apply for the aid online beginning later this year, and the form will be available in English and Spanish. There will be no paper application. Applications will be open during a four-month window and parents should be notified within five business days whether they were approved, placed on a waiting list or if they do not qualify, according to the program website.
The state program is a supplement, not a replacement, to the services and resources public schools are required to give students based on their individual learning plan.
Only families of students who are identified as having a low incidence disability — like an intellectual disability, significant physical disability or who are deaf and or blind — and are enrolled in a public school for the current school year and were enrolled during the initial pandemic-related school closures in the spring are eligible for the benefit. Students must also have an individualized education plan because of the disability.
Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said the $1,500 “may seem generous,” but it will not go far enough for many families, especially when it can cost thousands of dollars to work with private experts and therapists.
“We know that students with disabilities have suffered a lot during this pandemic and have suffered many setbacks, so they deserve attention. But this announcement today seems to be a more piecemeal approach to helping them rather than a comprehensive school-based strategy,” Aleman said.
The program forces parents and districts to compete for the same limited set of resources, Aleman said, adding that he thinks the state could have leveraged the multi-million dollar investment to provide more far-reaching support.
The state will use $30 million in CARES Act funding, a federal coronavirus relief bill, which will cover the 20,000 eligible students the state expects will apply, said Frank Ward, a TEA spokesperson.
Nearly 59,000 students will be eligible for the aid program, accounting for a fraction of the roughly half a million students statewide who receive special education services through their schools.
If additional families apply, families with greater financial need will be prioritized. If fewer families apply, remaining funds will be added to existing parent accounts at the end of the four-month application window, according to the state website.