Special-needs children will be forgotten no longer

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

For my wife and me, providing relief for families of special-needs children is personal.

We are the proud parents of a special-needs son. When he was younger, he struggled in a public school that could not give him the individual care he needed. We were fortunate to have the means to send him to a private school that helped him realize his full potential.

I want all families to feel the same relief we felt when we heard him say, “I finally feel like I’m a part of a team.”

That’s why I’ve authored House Bill 1335 to give these children an opportunity to receive the specialized care they deserve and to fulfill our state constitutional mandate. HB 1335 would give all special-needs students in Texas an alternative to the one-size-fits all public school system by establishing an innovative form of parental choice.

Since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975 and various programs introduced at the state level in past decades, parents and educators have worked to accommodate students with special needs. Our public schools have carried a heavy burden in trying to meet the goal of making sure our most vulnerable children are cared for and acquiring essential knowledge while at school.

Over the past decade alone, Texas' school population has grown from around 4.5 million to 5.3 million. The Legislative Budget Board estimates that student enrollment will climb by about 85,000 new kids a year. It’s a strain just to keep up.

Given the size of the student population, it’s time we give our schools a helping hand by empowering parents of special-needs children.

With the passage of HB 1335, up to 90 percent of the state-allocated dollars for that child would be put into an Individual Education Plan Account that families can use to customize their child’s education. That would be a very generous benefit to help cover the very high cost of a special-needs education.

Through this account, families would be given the ability to use some of their taxpayer money on approved educational expenses, including private school tuition, specialized tutoring, occupational therapy and online courses.

Students who are eligible to participate in the program include those with disabilities (or 504 status).

Individual Education Plan Accounts are are designed for families in search of alternatives: families who cannot afford to move to a new school district, pay for private school tuition or cover the costs of specialized tutors and therapies. We’ll give the families who opt into the program the freedom to choose the best educational setting for their child while remaining good stewards of taxpayer funds. We will not write a blank check. The money families receive will be carefully audited by the Texas comptroller for use on approved educational services.

Texas is a national leader on a score of issues: economic prosperity, jobs, energy and technology. Unfortunately, when it comes to providing the very best education to special needs and foster children, we're far behind. About 33,000 families with special needs students exit the public school system every year, according to one estimate, because they don't get the support they need. We must be there for them

Thirty states have private school choice programs. Arizona lawmakers were the first in the nation to make similar accounts available to families — and children with special needs were the first students given access. Since then, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Nevada have enacted special accounts, all giving parents more options in how to education their child, as outlined in a recent report from the Goldwater Institute and Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.

Texas families and children deserve the same flexibility and freedom in education. My proposal will allow for a tailor-made educational environment that best supports the physical, emotional and educational needs of each special-needs child.

I want every special-needs child, like mine, to finally feel like they're part of a team.

Ron Simmons

State representative, R-Carrollton