School choice advocates hope ‘special needs bill’ passes in compromise

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the wake of the Texas House scuttling a Senate idea of spending tax dollars on private and home schooling, school choice advocates say they hope their ideas could come from the House itself.

School choice advocates have been pushing for “education savings accounts,” every family could have a debit card worth about $5,000 or $6,000 they could use for private schools or home schools.

House Bill 1335, by Rep. Ron Simmon, R-Carrollton, would create an education savings account program for only children with “special needs.”

“It’s a pretty small population from those who will participate, probably a few thousand kids will take advantage of it. And, we can see how it works. Right, we can see whether or not this system works at all,” said Rep. Simmons. Right now his bill list several other categories of students — in foster care, homeless, at-risk of dropping out — but he says a “committee substitute” or latest version of the bill is limited to special needs students.

Rep. Ron Simmons whittled down his original bill to a topic he knows about. His son grew up with autism and they chose a mix of home and private school. He says public school programs don’t improve fast enough.

“Every day you wait for them is not just a day you’re waiting, they regress. So these families don’t have time for that,” said Simmons.

Only those whose children are classified as a special needs child are eligible. According to Texas State Law, a student is eligible to participate in a school district’s special education program if the student is 21 years old or younger and has a visual or auditory impairment, that prevents them from safely being educated in a classroom without special services, is 3 to 21 year old and has a physical disability, emotional disturbance, learning disability, autism, a speech disability or a traumatic brain injury would be qualified as special needs.

“Special education is expensive. Districts already spend far more than they are given on those students,” said Monty Exter, from the Association of Texas Professional Educators. He says improving special education should come from within the state school system and worries private and home schools won’t have the same required standards.

“You’re talking about taking away their federal rights under IDEA which are very substantial rights. In addition to what all vouchers do which is to weaken the public system,” said Exter.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, states that every child who has a disability has the right to a free and appropriate public education. It requires a school to provide special education that meets the needs of your child, at no cost. This requires schools to provide accommodations and modifications for your child. That includes providing services like transportation and speech therapy.

It also requires a school to allow students with disabilities be educated with non disabled students in both academic and nonacademic services, non-academic services includes meals, recess and physical education as appropriate to the child’s needs.

Earlier this month, the Texas House voted 103-44 to ban public dollars for a major “voucher” program. That was directly in response to the Senate passing Senate Bill 3, which would create education savings accounts for poor students in heavily populated areas. SB 3 was a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

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