Lawmakers in many states have expanded opportunities for students with disabilities, allowing them to seek the services, therapies and schooling that best meet their needs. Sadly, Texas has not only failed to follow suit but has moved in the opposite direction by covertly denying services within the public system. Texas policy should encourage school districts to provide services to children with disabilities, and it should allow them the freedom and opportunity to find other education and therapy solutions.
In 2016, the Houston Chronicle exposed a 12-year effort on the part of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to subvert the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Chronicle’s efforts uncovered an arbitrary administrative cap of 8.5 percent on the number of special needs children a district could serve before facing bureaucratic interference from the TEA.
Some Texas school districts faced harassment from the TEA because they were unwilling to shortchange the needs of their students, yet the statewide average for special needs children in public schools did in fact drop to exactly 8.5 percent. Unfortunately, evidence of public opposition to this policy by district officials is difficult to find.
It is no mystery as to why most districts complied with the TEA mandate. Districts have provided legislative testimony detailing that they divert locally generated resources into special education. In 2004, for instance, officials testified that this diversion averaged over $8,000 per special needs child. Districts have an obligation under federal law to provide services to students even if the state and federal governments do not cover the full cost, making the state’s cap appear to be an effort to circumvent the civil rights of children with disabilities.
New Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appropriately eliminated the Texas Education Agency’s cap practices after investigation. Regaining the confidence of special needs parents however will not likely proceed so quickly. Disability Rights Texas estimates that 200,000 students were denied special education services last year alone.
Other states went in a profoundly different direction with regards to special education-granting greater freedom rather than denying services. Rather than denying public school services, these states created the opportunity for special needs students to receive the services and education they seek from private therapists and schools, paid for with public funds. These programs benefit students, parents and the bottom lines of districts: Participating parents receive far greater flexibility in use of funds, giving districts greater flexibility over the use of locally generated funds.
Around the same time that Texas officials implemented a cap, Arizona lawmakers created programs allowing children with disabilities to seek private opportunities using public funds. Arizona students with disabilities can remain in public schools if they wish, but they can also opt into a system that provides funding for private school tuition or certified therapists, among other options.
Participating Arizona parents have emphasized their gratitude for this program and the opportunity it provides to customize the education of their child. But what has been the impact on children with disabilities who remain in district schools? If a small number of students benefit while a larger number of them suffer, one could argue that the policy should be avoided. Fortunately, the opposite has occurred in Arizona.
The Nation’s Report Card allows us to track the progress of special education students on six academic exams encompassing math, reading and science. Texas students with disabilities demonstrated large declines in performance on four of six of the exams, and no progress on the remaining two. Meanwhile, Arizona students with disabilities made gains far greater than the national average on all six exams.
Put yourself in the shoes of a special needs student or parent for a moment: Would you desire a limited set of options and cold-blooded state policies discouraging districts from meeting your needs? Or would you desire a system in which you have additional options if things don’t work out?
Lawmakers can and should take other actions to improve the dismal state of special education in the Lone Star State. However, any reform effort should include the broadening of opportunities and should not preclude other efforts. After all, children with disabilities will only have the best opportunity to thrive and flourish when they have the ability to choose their service providers.