Underlying the expansive “school choice” debate roiling the Texas Capitol is the contention that a traditional neighborhood public school might not be right for every child.
Some proponents argue that is especially true for students with disabilities.
“Students with the very specific needs might be better served by a program that is more narrowly tailored to what they want to accomplish and what they need,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
Williams has introduced legislation to create a voucher program for students with disabilities that would allow them to use state dollars to pay for private school tuition. The Senate Education Committee will hold a public hearing on Senate Bill 115 on Tuesday.
The bill is one of many aimed at opening up more options for public school students who are in low-performing schools or are looking for something different. Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, wants to eliminate the cap on new charter school operators. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, has said he will file a bill to create a private school scholarship program paid for through donations from businesses, which in turn would get a state tax credit.
Williams is hoping the political momentum behind “school choice” will help his bill, which has gone nowhere in past sessions, gain some traction.
There are more than 430,000 special education students in Texas public schools whose disabilities range from learning difficulties to severe physical and mental problems. Their needs can vary greatly from extra assistance in the classroom to intensive therapies.
Williams said his voucher proposal would give families more flexibility to choose what is best for a child with special needs and also benefit school districts because those students are the most expensive to educate.
But special education providers worry that the students and their parents would be giving up key protections if they left the public school.
“We feel strongly that that child is going to get better and more services with accountability in the public school than they are going to get in any private school,” said Janna Lilly, governmental relations director for the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.
Private schools are not subject to the same federal law that requires public schools to provide the services called for under a student’s “individualized education plan,” which could include speech therapy, nursing services, assistive technology and other supports. Free transportation is also mandated by law.
Lilly, who until last year led the special education department in the Austin school district, added that only higher income families would be able to take advantage of the program.
“It becomes choice for some instead of choice for all,” Lilly said.
Williams said the voucher may or may not be enough to cover the full cost of private school tuition, but he has heard from many parents who say they need some financial help to get their children an education that is attuned to their needs.
“For parents who could afford, either through scholarships or personal means to get part of the way there, this may be the margin of whether they are able to get their child into a specialized program or not,” Williams said.
Districts spend on average $16,000 per special education student but receive only about one-third of that cost from the state, according to Tom Canby of the Texas Association of School Business Officials. The rest is covered by local dollars.
“The idea is that a portion of that money would follow the student and a portion would stay back with the district,” Williams said.
The amount of the voucher would equate to only the state’s portion of the total costs, which Canby calculated as $5,600 per student on average.
Whether the voucher amount would be sufficient to cover private school tuition is unclear.
At the Notre Dame School of Dallas, a private Catholic school that serves students with mild to moderate developmental disabilities, tuition runs $7,500, said Theresa Francis, principal of the school. Charitable contributions help to cover the full cost of $13,000 per student.
But Francis estimated the tab at private schools that specifically serve students with learning disabilities can reach $15,000 to $20,000.
“I don’t see it being this big, open door to solving all the problems of parents,” Francis said of the voucher proposal.
In Florida, a program similar to the one Williams has proposed provided private school scholarships last year to 5 percent of the eligible special education students. The size of the scholarship ran from nearly $4,300 to more than $18,500. The average was $6,849.
Matthew Ladner, senior adviser of policy research for the advocacy group Foundation of Excellence in Education in Florida, said the “individualized education plans” called for under federal law should include “the choice of providers if they are really going to be individualized.”
He added that all of the students benefit, not just those who use the scholarship, because the option to leave creates a sense of competition that motivates public schools to raise their standards.
“The fact that you can have an escape mechanism if needed makes it more likely that you are going to have a positive public school experience in the first place,” Ladner said.
Luann Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, said that many involved in special education think a voucher program presents serious problems.
“The parent has no guarantee that the level of service will meet a service standard, or will even be provided,” Purcell said. “This group of students, who are the most vulnerable, will actually leave a place where there is lots of protection and oversight to a place where there is minimal or no oversight,” she said.