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Texas School Choice Debate Could Affect Students With Special Needs

Children with disabilities are central to a fierce debate in the state legislature over any school voucher program. Roughly 13 percent of Texas public school students receive special education services.

Principal Carmen Fernandez stands in the hallway of the Notre Dame School of Dallas, a private school for children with intellectual disabilities, in downtown Dallas on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.
(Liesbeth Powers/Dallas Morning News/TNS)
)TNS) — Inside this small school tucked into Uptown’s State Thomas neighborhood, roughly 170 children — many of them with Down syndrome — learn core subjects as well as skills for independent living.

At the Notre Dame School of Dallas, a classroom is equipped with a Murphy bed so children can get hands-on practice tucking in the sheets and covering the pillows. Elsewhere in the building, students read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" together or learn about Jackie Robinson.

Therapy, vocational training and small class sizes are hallmarks of a school deeply rooted in its Catholic mission of serving those with special needs, the poor and the marginalized.

This type of education comes with a high price: Roughly $24,000 per child. Through fundraising, the school ensures no family pays more than 50% of that out-of-pocket. Roughly half of students get additional financial aid.

As the Legislature debates a voucher-like program that would give families public funds to help pay for private school, supporters face an uphill battle in the House. Republican proponents are pitching a number of paths forward with specific cutouts that could win over skeptics. Among them is a narrow option that would provide education savings accounts only to students like those at Notre Dame School — children with special needs.

Based on the testimony, “there’s definitely children who need that specialized care and the financial burden shouldn’t be what keeps them from getting a good education,” said Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond.

Children with disabilities are central in a fierce debate over any school voucher program. Roughly 13% of Texas public school students receive special education services.

While campuses such as Notre Dame exist specifically to serve those with developmental disabilities, private schools in general can turn away children based on their special needs.

Public schools, meanwhile, are required to serve every child.

Families seeking out programs like Notre Dame — many of whom have tried public school and found it unable to best serve their kids — could benefit from an $8,000 education savings account as proposed in legislation, officials say.

“I sure would like to see it in my lifetime,” Notre Dame Principal Carmen Fernandez said. “In my lifetime would be nice.”

Schools for whom?

Getting a spot at a special-needs only private school can be difficult. Notre Dame, for example, has no empty seats. Texas has relatively few others like it.

Tension over how children with disabilities fit into the school choice debate was on display in a recent House Public Education committee, when Chairman Brad Buckley sparred with a Central Texas mother who said her special-needs son was denied entry to private schools in the area.

“Much has been said about vouchers being most helpful for vulnerable populations, like students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students,” she said. “The reality is, private schools create systems that help them maintain the demographics they desire.”

Buckley, R-Killeen, pointed to testimony from other parents who found success at private schools that cater to children with special needs.

“It’s absolutely appropriate, you know, to make certain that these kids have access to that type of education and that type of care,” he said. “To somehow suggest there’s just no way, there’s absolutely no way that this body could provide a pathway for kids and families that are struggling, I don’t know, I just find that to be sort of narrow-minded.”

Political moves

Universal education savings accounts for all children may prove a “difficult lift” in the House, Buckley said. One focused on children with special needs is an approach Buckley finds compelling.

“I was personally really moved by that testimony,” he said.

Any education proposal needs sign-off from Buckley’s committee in order to advance to the House floor for a vote. Right now, the committee members are weighing a range of proposals, as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick label school choice a top priority.

The Senate passed legislation giving families up to $8,000 to use on private school tuition and other education expenses. Meanwhile, the House voted during budget negotiations to bar state funding for vouchers or anything like it.

While largely symbolic, the move cast doubt on whether an education savings account plan could get through the chamber, which has historically blocked such efforts.

Some representatives are leaning toward the approach for children with disabilities.

A bill by Jetton would give parents of those students at least $7,250 a year toward education. The money could be used on private school tuition, transportation, technology and textbooks, among other things. Anything left over could be put toward higher education.

Jetton’s proposal is wrapped up in sweeping legislation that overhauls special education funding at public schools based on the recommendations of a key state committee. The ESA component drew the sharpest debate.

Several parents said at a recent hearing that their children thrived in specialized private schools that offered more attention or support than was available at their local public school.

Paul Van Allen told lawmakers about the stress of coming up with funds to send his two special needs children to specialized private schools in the Austin-area. Every dollar spent on their education now is one less to support them in the future.

“I am taking that (money) away from how are they going to eat after I die? Who is going to take care of them?” he said.

Critics warned that special needs students who switch to private schools would lose key legal protections, and could face discrimination as those with higher needs may be denied services as private schools.

Federal law requires public schools to perform certain evaluations on students, work with families to provide a specialized education plan and do it all at no cost to parents.

“When I was a principal and worked on a campus that focused on special needs children, it was a one-way door: kids coming to us out of the private sector because they didn’t have the resources,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “A public school is available to all children. We pay for it. We don’t ask how much a child costs.”

Texas has opened the door to the idea of dedicated state funds for students in special education.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, the state established a program to provide one-time, $1,500 microgrants to students with special needs. Since 2020, roughly 88,000 students have taken advantage of the funds, which could be used for educational materials and other services, such as speech therapy, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The state education agency has a history of providing inadequate help for its vulnerable students.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2018 determined that Texas schools denied services to students in a deliberate attempt to limit the number of kids enrolled in special education.

More than 700,000 students now receive special education services in Texas public schools, and it’s not clear how many of them would be able to take advantage of a new ESA program.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House education committee, said the state is underfunding special education “to the tune of $2 billion annually.”

“The challenges we have with our special education kids are, in large part, due to underfunding that program and so absolutely we need to do better in all our school districts in the state,” she said. “But washing our hands of these kids, sending them to a private school where they no longer have these federal protections, is not the answer.”

Notre Dame impact

Carol Battalora’s daughter enrolled at Notre Dame when she was 5. Two decades later, she attends the school’s program for adults. She’s been part of the school’s Special Olympic group, and teachers have helped her grow as a reader.

“Where would she have had the opportunity to be challenged, but at her level? They focus on what she can do,” said Battalora, who also works at the school.

For most of her daughter’s life, the family paid tuition and fees. If an education savings account had been around to cut down costs, “the funds could’ve been saved for her future,” Battalora said.

Notre Dame fundraises more than $2 million a year to support its budget, school officials said. Families still make sacrifices to attend, including driving long distances. Students arrive each day from more than 80 ZIP codes.

The school maintains a list of interested families. Before they can enroll, officials look at students’ test scores, evaluations and have them come in for a shadow day to make sure they’ll be a good fit.

A fall 2022 survey by the Texas Private Schools Association found roughly 97,500 open seats in private schools across the state. Of the survey respondents, 87% of private schools said they serve children with special needs.

“When asked if they would serve additional students with special needs if they applied, 35% said yes and 54% said maybe,” according to an association memo.

Jennifer Allmon, director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said the group supports the idea of universal choice, but recognizes lawmakers must put in limitations.

“Anytime, in any legislation, on any topic, when there’s a limitation, we believe you should prioritize the poor and vulnerable,” Allmon said. “That’s fundamentally our teaching.”

Also important to leaders at Notre Dame is that any government-funded program doesn’t interfere with their ability to proudly discuss their faith.

“It has to be something that’s going to let us keep the integrity of our Catholicity, the mission of our school,” Principal Fernandez said. “If that passes, absolutely, it will benefit families.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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