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Questions about how a voucher program would — or wouldn’t — serve children with disabilities took center stage at a Texas Senate education committee hearing Tuesday to discuss the main school voucher bill on the table during the Legislature’s latest special session.
Senate Bill 1, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would use taxpayer dollars to create education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would give families access to $8,000 a year to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses.
Voucher proponents argue that education savings accounts would allow students with disabilities access to specialized schools if public schools are not meeting their needs. Opponents, however, have pointed out that private schools, unlike public schools, are not required by law to provide special education services.
Some disability advocates have raised concerns about funneling public dollars into private schools when the state’s public school system, which serves most special needs students in Texas, remains underfunded. The number of students with disabilities in Texas has increased by 200,000 in the last five years, according to Steven Aleman, policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas.
“Our public school enrollment is growing. Our special education population is growing,” Aleman testified Tuesday. “We need to focus on supporting that system first and foremost, and [education savings accounts], quite frankly, are just a luxury we cannot afford.”
SB 1 notes that private schools are not subject to regulations laid out in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires public schools to provide key services to students with disabilities, said Sabrina Gonzalez Saucedo, public policy analyst for the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities.
“This includes a right to free and appropriate public education, to be evaluated and to have a diagnostician go over findings, individualized education programs and other really important protections under the law,” Gonzalez Saucedo said. “We’re really concerned that parents and students are going to be losing these rights should they take a voucher.”
Gonzalez Saucedo, whose sister has an intellectual disability, said another concern is that vouchers could create “segregated education” between disabled and non-disabled students. Students with disabilities often benefit from the chance to learn and play alongside non-disabled peers, and vouchers might incentivize parents to separate their children, she said.
Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, argued the opposite. Drogin said she recently heard from a mother whose son with Asperger’s syndrome tried to take his life after repeated bullying in public school for his disability.
“I have heard thousands of parents begging for the opportunity to speak for their child and unchain them from a school that is not serving them,” Drogin said.
But even if given the chance to attend a private school, disability rights advocates raised concerns that private schools will simply not admit children with disabilities. And private schools, specifically for students with disabilities, are often in urban areas and have tuition fees upwards of $20,000 annually, according to Jacquie Benestante, executive director of the Autism Society of Texas.
Benestante, whose son has autism, said a private school in Austin refused to take her son for its summer camp when he was in elementary school.
“He has very low-support needs,” she said. “He’s a very well behaved kid, and they actually told me, ‘Call back in May. If we don't have enough regular kids, we'll take him.’”
Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said private schools’ ability to deny applicants at their discretion could affect all voucher recipients, even those who are not disabled.
“If one of my constituents, who maybe falls under that category of economically disadvantaged [and needing a] free or reduced lunch, and they get their hopes up and they go and apply to that private school, but they [are] turned away because maybe they're not the right religion or the right color — that’s why I'm concerned because these are tax dollars,” Menéndez said.
Creighton said any concerns about discrimination in private school admission should be taken up in a separate piece of legislation.
“Although I understand your concerns that private schools have the ability to approve or deny based on that framework within that private school, moms and dads will be much smarter than us, as senators, in choosing the school that’s best for their child,” Creighton added.
Democratic lawmakers on the committee also raised concerns about the bill’s prioritization tiers.
To prioritize entry to underprivileged groups, the bill proposes that no more than 40% of spots are reserved for students who receive free or reduced lunch; no more than 30% to families who who earn between 185% and 500% of the federal poverty line; no more than 20% to students with disabilities; and 10% to all other applicants who attended public, private or home-school in the last school year.
Menéndez said the “no more than” language implies there will be a cap on how much funding goes to underprivileged applicants, instead of prioritizing them.
Pro-voucher advocates — including Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, and Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference on Bishops — also supported changing this language to make sure the program would distribute as much funding to low-income or disabled students as possible.
Disclosure: Texas Private Schools Association and Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.