The upcoming special legislative session is likely to provide just as many fireworks as the regular session did. Among the most controversial issues on the table is the contentious debate between the House and Senate over "private school choice."
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the Republicans who spearheaded "private school choice" measures for special needs students in the regular season will introduce similar legislation in the special session.
Rachel Gandy, a mental health policy fellow with the advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas says some other states that have implemented "private school choice" have started by providing public vouchers for special needs students to use for private school tuition.
"This is a type of program that can help some kids with disabilities, and there are some families that just need that extra boost," Gandy says.
But participating in a voucher program also comes with a cost. Typically, Gandy says, students who opt for private school relinquish their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The federal law requires public schools to provide special needs students with a "free and appropriate education." Schools must evaluate students who are believed to have a disability, to provide appropriate educational services, based on the student's needs, and to involve parents in decisions related to the child's education.
A "private school choice" program could potentially affect public school funding tied to education children with disabilities, under IDEA, but Gandy says public schools will continue to education most special needs students.
"The reality is this type of a program that would only impact a really small number of kids," Gandy says.
Gandy says that even with IDEA requirements, access to special education programs in public schools has not been automatic.
"During this past session, the biggest special ed story was the 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment," Gandy says. "And the reality is that...the only reason we knew this was a systemic problem is because there's so much public data available – because [the Texas Education Agency] does go through very rigorous accountability measures and monitoring systems."
Gandy says "choice" is a problematic concept, when it comes to school vouchers. Parents who want to send their children to a private schools have often been unable to do so for financial reasons, but also because schools are able to reject special needs applicants whose education would be costly, or who might have behavioral challenges.
"Those who have the choice might not be the families of kids with disabilities, especially severe disabilities and mental illness," she says "but likely that choice may fall with the private school."
Gandy says a parent who testified before the legislature during the regular session had been rejected by 13 private schools.
"Private schools really have a disincentive to take these kids, especially if they have more severe disabilities, or maybe a behavioral component to the disability," she says. "
Written by Shelly Brisbin.