SB 115 by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), a bill to make all Texas students with disabilities eligible for private-school vouchers, drew strong opposition from a broad array of witnesses in a Senate Education Committee hearing today. Parents of special-needs students, legal advocates for students with disabilities, educators, and concerned citizens all agreed: Funding the “choice” of a private-school voucher would do the children affected no favor and would undercut funding and special-education services in the public schools.
Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi said: “Private schools receiving state funds under this bill would have no obligation in exchange for public funding to provide appropriate services to students with disabilities. They would not be held accountable for the student’s achievement growth. They would have the option of administering state achievement tests, but the results would not be used to determine the private schools’ performance or to revoke the vouchers in cases of failure to meet students’ needs.”
Quinzi also noted that “SB 115 would eliminate safeguards of parental rights to contest decisions concerning what services are appropriate for their children. Once parents select a private recipient for public funding and their child transfers to that private setting under this bill, the parents lose their right to insist on compliance with the individualized education program (IEP) for their child. They also lose their right to a due-process proceeding in which to adjudicate any dispute over the appropriate services for their child.”
Quinzi also noted problems in other states with similar programs. In Florida, for instance, news reports and studies have revealed widespread examples of fraud, extreme low quality of educational offerings, and a remarkable lack of accountability.
Rather than mimicking the policy failures of other states, Quinzi urged Texas lawmakers to improve educational services for all special-needs students by pursuing a proactive legislative agenda, including intensive training for teachers and paraprofessionals providing services to these students, improved dispute-resolution mechanisms, and enhanced options for students with disabilities to go where appropriate services are available within the public schools. Quinzi also called for the restoration of educational funding that was cut last session and for the updating of obsolete funding weights than determine how much extra aid is provided to serve students with disabilities.
Speaking today for millions of Texans who belong to organizations united in the Coalition for Public Schools, Texas AFT Secretary-Treasurer Louis Malfaro, a member of the Coalition’s steering committee, was equally tough on SB 115. Malfaro said:
“This bill represents an erosion of the rights of special-education students. Over the last 30 years, federal and state laws have evolved to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education. Private schools are not required to provide the legal procedures mandated by federal and state laws to protect the rights and interests of students with disabilities or their parents. Moves to segregate students with disabilities rather than provide for their educations in the least restrictive environment as embodied in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are strongly rejected by parents and advocates of special-needs students, who see clearly that such efforts amount to a turning back of the clock to a time when disabled students were not afforded equal access to education. Such efforts represent an abdication of state responsibility to provide the appropriate educational services in the public schools, along with the requisite funding, to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, have access to a high-quality public education.”
Malfaro added: “This voucher bill provides choice for private schools, not for students. It would allow schools to decide which and how many students to enroll. Such a program is not likely to serve rural kids or severely needy kids and would result in private schools creaming kids with less severe disabilities, leaving public schools with fewer funds and more challenging kids to educate. This has been the experience with the McKay scholarship in Florida. The bill allows for discrimination on the basis of religion in admissions, which we believe violates the Texas Constitution, as does the public funding of private, sectarian institutions.
“This proposed voucher program will end up subsidizing affluent and current private-school students–not low-income kids. The bill does nothing to prevent schools from charging more than the value of the voucher, thereby benefiting affluent and currently enrolled private-school kids. The bill would allow private-school students to enroll in a public school long enough to get an IEP and then head back to private school with voucher in hand….”
SB 115 was left pending, without coming to a vote in the Senate Education Committee today. The bill is one of two major voucher bills filed thus far in the 2013 session. The other is SB 1015 by Sen. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), filed just yesterday, which every two years would divert up to $250 million in taxes owed the state by offering tax credits to businesses that finance “scholarships” for students attending private schools.