Despite major pushback from education professionals and a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans, Governor Greg Abbott plans to pass a school voucher system this legislative session. Its form is still unknown, but it’s possible that Abbott will try to expand the state’s Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) to include all Texans.
SSES was created in 2021 during the COVID outbreak to help children who could not access special needs education resources at their schools because of outbreak concerns. It was a joint effort by the Texas Education Agency and the Office of Governor that passed to wild acclaim. Parents were able to access $1,500 for additional special needs education resources no longer available because of COVID. Only public school students qualified. So far, $110 million has been dedicated to the program.
According to Jeremy Wallace of The Houston Chronicle, Abbott’s planned Education Savings Account (ESA) might try to piggyback on SSES, opening it up to all students and vastly expanding the money available.
“I think he [Abbott] does start throwing that stuff [talk about Education Savings Accounts/ESAs beyond campaign events] around,’ he said on the Texas Take podcast. “I think they have a program in the state of Texas that isn’t built for this, quite honestly. Right now we have an ESA program, but that is for parents who have children with special needs. It helps them get additional tutoring or other educational resources. It’s not intended to pay for tuition, or what have you. He wants to expand this thing out. It’s going to get a lot of pushback. We already know that. The disabilities rights groups have already been complaining about how this program operates or how it has been used. They certainly don’t want to see more funding for special education students out of the public school system.”
As helpful as SSES has been to some students, the amount of money is often insufficient. Parents pay up to $5,000 for services, and during COVID many had to drain their savings to afford what they would otherwise get from public schools for free.
Flooding the SSES program with new applicants would likely overwhelm the system. Nor is it designed to simply hand money to parents who would rather send their children to a pricey private religious school. Even if the funding were increased by a factor of ten, parents would likely still be scrambling to make up the difference, particularly in rural areas with fewer options.
The primary complaint from those opposed to Abbott’s voucher system is that it would continue to drain school coffers and funnel money to religious schools in urban and suburban areas favored by conservatives. As Texas school funding is already based on an attendance model, paying parents to not send their kids to school would be a double hit to school budgets.
Cannibalizing funding set aside for special needs education will put strain on the programs and make them less likely to be able to adequately provide for their students. If Abbott’s plan for a voucher system runs through SSES, it would gut a program that helped thousands of students in great need for the benefit of those who already have sufficient means.