News 88.7 inDepth


Many Texas special ed parents fear school vouchers because ‘private schools don’t have to play’

The governor and top lawmakers have pointed to students in special education as prime beneficiaries of school vouchers. Some community members are worried the approach will drain funds from already shortchanged public schools while opening the door for discrimination against students with disabilities. 


Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at Annapolis Christian School on January 31, 2023.


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When Governor Greg Abbott first announced his support for school vouchers at the end of January, he pointed to an existing program for a specific student group.

"In 2020, I created limited education savings accounts for special needs students, and it’s been so successful," he said.

There was some tension between his rhetoric and reality.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) would give money to parents who pull kids out of public education or who have young children starting private school. Within about a decade, every private school student in Texas could be eligible to receive taxpayer dollars for tuition.

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In his January speech, Governor Abbott was talking about a pandemic program that was only available to families with kids in public schools. That's the opposite of the voucher program he's pushing for.

At the Capitol, the bitter debate over school vouchers pits folks who want education to look more like a marketplace — where parents act as consumers and decide where their tax dollars go — against opponents who argue that the state needs to better fund public schools instead of diverting dollars to private institutions. Voucher opponents argue that students in special education could be discriminated against and left in an underfunded system if the proposed program is enacted.

Support for vouchers — ‘we cannot just rely on traditional public schools'

Terri Lowery got help from the program Abbott referred to in January, known as Special Education Supplemental Services.

Her 14-year-old daughter had an early stroke and received a cerebral palsy diagnosis. She's in Tomball ISD near Houston. The family received a $1,500 grant to help make up for learning losses during the pandemic by paying for extra services, like occupational therapy, or OT.

"At her OT, they use a special listening program, so we were able to provide that equipment so she can use it at home," Lowery said. "We’ve been able to pay for some of her tutoring."

According to the Texas Education Agency, the program received more than 120,000 applications over the past three years. More than 86,000 grants were issued, and more than 24,000 were approved but are still waiting for grants.

Lowery, like a lot of special education parents, has had frustrating experiences in the public system. Her daughter actually moved to a specialized private school for about half a decade, and the family "had our happy child back." But they decided to transition back to Tomball ISD "because of our higher level of academic needs."

She feels like she isn't listened to and that her daughter is often left behind. Lowery supports vouchers, in part, because she thinks it will reduce the burden on public schools.

"I’ve sat in legislative sessions with special ed parents that are on the other side that are completely opposed to it because they think that that's segregation of their special ed kid," she said. “What I’ve tried to get across is, nobody’s telling you you have to do this. And ultimately, I actually think it would be better for your special ed kid if they stayed in public school, because now that one teacher is not trying to deal with six to ten sub-classes of different levels, they might only have four that they’re dealing with, and that would benefit your child and my child better."

Lowery thinks public schools can't meet the needs of every kid. This sentiment has been echoed at the highest levels of the state government — including at the Texas Education Agency.

"We cannot just rely on traditional public schools to solve all of our problems," said TEA deputy commissioner Steve Lecholop.

Earlier this year, Lecholop called a parent who had pulled her kid out of special ed in Joshua ISD, south of Fort Worth, and asked her to share her story with a speechwriter for Governor Abbott. The call was recorded without his knowledge.

In the call, Lecholop acknowledged that public schools could lose funding if a voucher program is implemented.

"So school districts, what they have to do is just like be smart about — if they lose students — be smart about how they allocate the resources," he said. "And maybe that’s one less fourth grade teacher."

Opposition to vouchers — ‘They don’t have to take my child'

Lecholop apologized for his comments, writing that they "expressed neither my personal opinion nor the opinion of the Texas Education Agency," after special education advocate and activist Lynn Davenport published the call on Youtube.

Davenport — a self-described conservative — thinks the voucher fight encapsulates how GOP lawmakers are at times behind "the worst bills in education."

"They always use the most vulnerable children — whether it is poor minority children, whether it is at-risk children, special needs children — that always seems to be the way that they can, you know, ‘Cue the violins, oh, this is such a sad story,'" Davenport said. "But instead of doing what they can to really help them using the system that we have, and the process that we have ... they’re using it as an exit strategy ... And it’s not going to help."

That's one piece of the anti-voucher perspective. Opponents argue public schools should get better funding before lawmakers even talk about diverting funds towards private schools.

Another piece: fear of discrimination. Private schools aren't subject to federal law that protects students with disabilities.

"What people don’t realize is these private schools don’t have to play," parent Hailey Sinclair said. "They don’t have to take my child."

Sinclair has two sons in special ed in Fort Worth ISD. She was deeply frustrated by delays in her older son receiving proper evaluations and services for dysgraphia and dyslexia. She's considering private school.

"One of the private schools — I don’t want to say they pursued us, but they were very like excited," Sinclair recalled. "And then when I told them he was dyslexic, she said, ‘We have never accepted a child that is dyslexic.'"

Even so, Sinclair thinks private school could be a better option for her family. But she doesn't think taxpayer dollars should fund that choice.

"It just allows parents that have the means to pay for private school to take their money out, which lowers the funding to all public schools," she said. "I see it as a carve out and also just a stepping stone to them being able to more easily take money away from public schools instead of just funding the public schools."

This same debate is playing out at the Texas Capitol right now, and it actually started before the legislative session kicked off.

Movement at the Legislature

In 2021, lawmakers created the Texas Commission on Special Education funding. The commission found that the state was shortchanging local districts on special education costs to the tune of almost $2 billion per year. On a mostly bipartisan basis, they included recommendations that would ramp up funding for special education.

The commission also recommended vouchers, with four members voting for that recommendation and three — including one Republican — voting against.

Democratic State Representative Mary González of El Paso was on the commission.

"When we think about special education funding, when we start siphoning off the funds that are needed for the entire community and the entire state to do ESAs, we’re really putting at risk our most vulnerable population," she said. "What I would rather we be doing is really investing in institutionalizing the supports that kids with disabilities need."

Republican State Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston voted for the recommendation. He's co-author of an expansive education bill, Senate Bill 8, which would make education savings accounts available to most families in private school within about a decade, and of a more narrow ESA bill tailored for families with low incomes and kids in special education. Both bills also bump up public school funding.

"It’s the parents’ choice," he said. "They should be able to take their taxpayer money and go to a facility that they think can get the best education for their children. And that’s the real discussion. Not some pejorative, ‘Oh, well, somehow the tax money has gotten into some governmental coffers,' because we need to get rid of that thinking. That’s not what we need to move forward with how to do the best education with stratified marketing and stratified markets throughout Texas."

González and Bettencourt presented the two poles of the voucher debate. One perspective calls for increased funding of the public system until it's able to meet all needs, while the other argues that the public system can never meet all needs and that education should look more like a marketplace.

SB 8 — which also includes so-called "Don't Say Gay" components — is making progress in the Legislature, passing through a Senate committee this week 10-2 along party lines. The bill is likely to face a tough battle in the house, as the voucher debate doesn't boil down to a simple bipartisan divide.

In December, then-State Representative Dan Huberty — a Harris County Republican — pushed back against the voucher recommendation in the special ed funding report.

"This final report proved that the State is underfunding the LEAs by more than $1.8 Billion," he wrote. "So, instead of diverting funds from General Revenue to fund an ESA, the Commission should first recommend that the State fully fund the ‘GAP' that currently exists."

The bill would require applicants to be notified that private schools are "not subject to federal and state laws regarding the provision of educational services to a child with a disability in the same manner as a public school."

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Dominic Anthony Walsh

Dominic Anthony Walsh

Education & Culture Reporter

Dominic Anthony Walsh covers education & culture for Houston Public Media's enterprise team. His work examines the institutions and policies affecting millions of students and families across Texas, with a focus on Houston — home to the largest school district in the state. He comes to the Bayou City after...

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