In the closing days of the 87th Texas Legislature, lawmakers are considering a bill that many public school advocates say contains a school voucher. SB 1716 passed the Senate in early May and was referred to the House Public Education Committee two days later.
In January 2021 “State leadership created the Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program in to provide Texas public school students with $1,500 stipends to obtain services, curriculum, or other supplies to continue these students’ educational progress. The purpose of these grants is to supplement the services already being provided by the student’s public school. The grant was funded with federal funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.”
According to the bill analysis by the Senate Research Center, “S.B. 1716 makes permanent the SSES program, so that special education families across Texas have access to additional funding to support their child’s public school education. The filed version of the legislation allows any student in a Texas public school’s special education program to be eligible; however, TEA is directed to give priority to children receiving the compensatory education allotment, those with cognitive disabilities, and those eligible for the alternative STAAR exam.”
While many legislators contend that the bill does not contain a voucher, public school advocates point out that the money for supplemental services in the bill are paid from the state directly to vendors and doesn’t run through the school district nor the admissions, review, dismissal (ARD) committee for special education students as required by federal law.
In a letter sent to committee members on Monday, the Coalition for Public Schools said, “The bill would create a voucher system in that public funds are being used to pay private vendors. While we appreciate the wording in the bill that the student would have to be a current public education student, funneling public funds to private vendors when districts have no involvement in this process is inappropriate.”
The letter cites an additional concern that the dollars are not flowing through the ARD committee required by federal law for decision-making for special education students. “There is no involvement by a district in the determination of a needed special education service or instructional material in this bill. ARD committees in Texas collaboratively determine a student’s needs through the development and implementation of his or her IEP. Without this process, there is no guarantee that the student will be helped.”
According to Charles Luke, the Coordinator of the Coalition there are other concerns with the bill regarding the authority and capacity of the Texas Education Agency. “TEA does not have the internal capacity to manage the program”, Luke said in the letter, “Without proper oversight the accountability for how money is spent will be inconsistent with the needs of the very children the bill proposes to help.” Another part of the letter contends that the bill gives the Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath too much authority. “Even with a limit of $30 million, the commissioner is still given broad discretion in funneling state funds to this program when the funds should go to schools to fulfill the educational obligations of students’ individualized education programs (IEPs).”
Many legislators contend that the bill does not contain a voucher because the money goes only to the parents of public school students but public school advocates disagree, contending that the direct payment of public funds to a private entity constitutes a school voucher in this case.
The bill was to be considered in the House Public Education Committee on Monday afternoon without a public hearing but after an outcry from the public education advocacy community, the committee Chairman, Rep. Harold Dutton decided to postpone the bill and give it a hearing on Tuesday.
If the bill passes through the committee it will go to the Calendar Committee and possibly onto the floor. Legislators have been dealing with an increasing number of issues on the floor where their votes are more exposed to the public. Strong debate is likely to continue over the bill with its outcome as yet unknown.