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Lawmakers take students hostage in voucher fight

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Parents and advocates fought for years to get the state to recognize the rights of dyslexic students. Finally, in 2021, the state made changes to the handbook that helps educators understand how to evaluate students with dyslexia, making them eligible for the same federal protections given other students with learning difficulties.

It was an overdue step for many families who can recount stories similar to the one Angela Bolton Smith shared with the State Board of Education Committee as it was considering the new guidelines.

“My son began to gradually change during the school year, he was no longer happy to go to school,” Smith told the committee. “He began to hate school, and he began to give up on learning. Just imagine a 6-year-old child calling himself dumb daily.”

No child should be denied the support they need to thrive.

But that’s what could be at stake as the fight over this session’s education priority — vouchers or education savings accounts — comes to a head.

It seems, from Chronicle reporting, that behind the scenes, any number of education finance reforms that would otherwise garner broad support, including special education funding, are now at risk if voucher supporters don’t get what they want.

Legislators often look for bargaining chips to get their priorities across the finish line and with Senate- passed school vouchers continuing to hit roadblocks in the House, it seems voucher supporters have landed on special education students as one of their chips.

In some cases, voucher proponents have tied funding for special education reforms and vouchers directly together in a single bill but there’s also a concern that standalone efforts from the House to advance education finance reform simply won’t be matched by the Senate.

Any number of important education finance items are now caught in the crosshairs of this fight, including more money for special education assessments, transportation and in-class supports for students with dyslexia.

“Our really positive change we’ve been talking about for probably over five years, now it’s being held hostage if we don’t accept a voucher,” Andrea Chevalier, a lobbyist with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education told Chronicle reporter Edward McKinley.

In other words, if these lawmakers can’t help enrich private schools at taxpayer expense, they’re willing to hurt special education students — one of the very groups voucher advocates claim to care most about.

Both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have also expressed their displeasure with the apparent stalemate over vouchers in the House.

The lower chamber significantly pared down the Senate’s massive school voucher bill. Though both chambers are controlled by Republicans, Patrick rules the Senate with an iron grip in part because he’s elected statewide, while House Speaker Dade Phelan tends to follow the overall “will of the House,” both out of tradition and because he’s elected by the members themselves, some of whom are urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who have historically been opposed to vouchers.

Where the Senate would like to give $8,000 in taxpayer money to any student who leaves public school and enrolls in a private one, the House version of the bill would drastically restrict eligibility, allowing only students in special education programs and those in F-rated districts to take the voucher.

Abbott was unimpressed: “The Senate’s version of school choice makes about 5.5 million students eligible, while the House’s version of that bill proposed last week would make about 4 million students eligible,” Abbott said in a statement Sunday. “The latest House version of school choice, which came out this weekend, only applies to about 800,000 students.” He also complained that the latest House version didn’t prioritize low-income students or give enough to special education students.

Abbott threatened to veto the House’s stripped down version and force a special session.

Some might actually see the House changes and think things are headed in the right direction: a more targeted program aimed at particular populations rather than a universal one that would mostly benefit more well-off families.

They’d be wrong.

The idea that this pared down version serves the most vulnerable students is still misleading — a false promise, according to David DeMatthews, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at UT-Austin.

“The private schools are going to take students who don’t have disabilities and are not more expensive to educate and the public schools are going to be left with fewer kids and fewer dollars and still have to meet all the needs of the students with the most severe needs,” DeMatthews told the Texas Tribune.

Even if special education students did end up getting a voucher for a private school, and found an institution that would accept them, they’d lose the federal protections that, in public school, guarantee them the support they need — the same protections families of students with dyslexia fought for years in Texas to earn.

This is the same state that had secretly imposed what was effectively a cap on how many students a district could designate for special education services, denying needed support to thousands of children, a shameful rationing of life-changing help that was revealed by a Chronicle investigation. Texas is also the state that, despite repeated admonishments from the federal government, continues to struggle to meet those students’ needs. Though the state education agency says it has made important progress, some estimate still show that the state underfunds its special education by nearly $2 billion.

Holding special education students hostage is bottom-barrel political dealing.

But let’s be clear: vouchers would also be harmful for these students, leaving those in private schools unprotected and those in public schools underfunded. Instead of committing to fully funding and supporting special education services in public schools, this transfer of taxpayer funds to private schools would absolve the state of its responsibility to actually care for these students.

Vouchers would be just another betrayal from a state long-practiced in it. We urge lawmakers opposed to vouchers to stand strong in rejecting these bills. Any hope we might have had that lawmakers pushing this voucher scheme are dealing in good faith, or out of a true desire to help kids who need it, has been dashed. What lawmaker who truly cares about kids would be so quick to throw them under the bus to win a political fight?

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666