Voucher proponents are targeting Texas’ most vulnerable population — students with disabilities and special education needs — in their quest to open the door to a universal taxpayer-funded voucher scheme.
And as bad as vouchers would be for Texas public education students in general, they would be far worse for special education students, more than 700,000 total, according to the most recent count by the Texas Education Agency.
Supporters of special education vouchers claim this initiative would bolster parental rights by giving families the choice to opt for private schools that better meet the unique needs of their children. But the truth is, this is just a cynical move by groups that want to get a foothold in establishing a voucher program in Texas. Their ill-conceived arguments don’t mention the fact that parents who accept a voucher would lose out on a long list of state and federal protections that have been developed over decades — and often prompted by litigation and court challenges — to ensure these students aren’t sidelined in the classroom — no matter the disability or need.
Parents across the Lone Star State, especially those who have fought long and hard to ensure their children with special needs receive all the support and services needed in school, should be wary about any voucher schemes that target their children.
Assertions that special education savings accounts would improve educational outcomes for these children with disabilities simply aren’t backed up by the facts. And in many cases, these vulnerable students would be at greater risk if moved to a private school setting because they would no longer have the safeguards available to children with special needs enrolled in public schools.
Those many safeguards include the right to the academic supports and related services needed for a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive setting. Public schools are also required to follow certain safety protocols to protect special education students, like cameras in certain classrooms and strict rules regarding the use of restraint and seclusion.
Here's a short list of what’s at stake in the debate over special education savings accounts for families with students receiving special education services. It’s also a reminder that vouchers — whether for all students or only those with special needs — will undermine parental rights and weaken Texas for generations to come by shortchanging our children who are the very future of our state.
Admissions and Affordability
Private schools, unlike public schools, aren’t required to accept all students, including those with disabilities or special needs. In fact, they are more likely to deny admission to these students because their educational needs are more costly and often more challenging.
The highest-quality private schools that serve children with disabilities are often priced well beyond the means of most families. The proposed special education savings accounts, valued at a little more than $8,000, would pick up only a fraction of the total cost of these schools.
Loss of IDEA and 504 Rights
Students with special needs are protected by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires all public schools to provide eligible students a free and appropriate public education, including an Individualized Education Program that outlines specific services and supports for academic progress. If the school fails to meet a student’s needs, families have an established process for seeking a resolution. In addition, students with special needs are further protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Most of those rights disappear if a student is placed at a private or religious school that does not accept federal funds, leaving families with fewer choices.
Segregation, Least Restrictive Environment, and Expulsion
IDEA requires public schools to provide all students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
This protection ensures students with unique learning needs, including intellectual and developmental disabilities, are not routinely segregated into separate, self-contained classrooms without first considering how to provide specialized instruction in a general education setting.
Private and religious schools may be able to provide some special education services to students, but parents should know they are not required to admit students with learning and physical differences, nor are they required to be inclusive. At any point, they could end the relationship with the family if the student’s disabilities prove too challenging or costly.
Simply put, special education vouchers are a gamble for families, who will not have the guarantee of IDEA protections to ensure their children receive appropriate academic and related services for their unique needs.
No Required Transparency or Accountability
One of the biggest red flags for parents about special education vouchers is the lack of transparency or accountability on how well private schools are doing in serving students with disabilities. This is in sharp contrast to Texas public schools that must comply with state and federal reporting requirements tied to IDEA, the Texas Education Code, and the Texas Administrative Code.
Essentially, parents who accept a special education voucher would lose any way to see how their private or religious school was measuring up. In addition, there is no requirement that these schools report on the number of students who are suspended or expelled, so parents would have no access to this information either.
Of course, data is one window into what’s happening in special education classrooms in public schools across Texas. In addition, lawmakers during the 84th Legislature also implemented the requirement that video and audio surveillance be made available in certain special education classrooms by request of parents or staff.
This law was intended to protect students who, because of a disability, may not be able to report mistreatment. This safeguard doesn’t apply to students in a private or religious school and is one more example of how families would lose out on their current rights by using vouchers.
Whether vouchers are for all students or only students requiring special education services, the fact is these programs don’t deliver what they promise. In contrast, research has shown that they negatively impact both parental rights and student academic achievement.
Instead of trying to distract Texas parents with disingenuous and dangerous assertions that vouchers would bolster parental rights, lawmakers should focus on strengthening public education through strategies that work, including the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, as well as fully funding special education services in schools.
Anything less is a disservice to Texas parents, especially those whose students may have intellectual or physical disabilities. These vulnerable students deserve the protection of federal and state laws — not empty promises and deceptive claims designed to shortchange our students, weaken public education, and jeopardize the future of our state.
Sylvia Wood is the division director of communications for TASB.