The Texas Senate recently passed an essential bill to establish Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for eligible students, expanding education opportunities and empowering families to provide their children with the best education tailored to their needs. ESAs greatly benefit students with special needs by enabling parents to invest in tutoring and individualized services for their children. Unfortunately, the Texas House of Representatives has a long history of opposing school choice, and struggling students continue to pay the price. Governor Greg Abbott called the current Texas legislative special session, hoping the Texas House will finally do the right thing and expand school choice in Texas to all students—including low-income and students with disabilities.
Texas has historically neglected children who qualify for special education services. According to the Texas Tribune, “A 2018 federal investigation found the state had been effectively denying students with disabilities the tools and services they need to learn, in violation of federal law.” As of May 2019, the U.S. Department of Education “did not find sufficient evidence Texas had done what was necessary to reach all the students who were previously denied special education services.”
If Texas was failing its students with disabilities before the pandemic, school closures during the pandemic harmed them further. Students were forced to learn remotely and, despite federal mandates that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE), these vulnerable students lost access to accommodations, services, classroom assistants, and individualized attention. Data from the Nation’s Report Card demonstrates that across the country, special education students performed significantly lower than their peers. In 2022, students with disabilities scored 38 points lower in reading and 33 points lower in mathematics assessments than students without special education needs.
Texas’ special education students fared even worse. Houston Independent School District is the largest district in the State. In 2022, 73% of Houston ISD students with disabilities did not meet grade-level standards in English language arts (ELA). Math results were similar, with 75% of students with disabilities not meeting grade-level standards in math in 2022.
Thankfully, ESAs offer hope to parents of struggling students. Specialized support, tutoring, and varying educational choices can significantly help special education students. Research from the Texas Public Policy Institute demonstrates that during the 2021-22 school year, 82% of special education students learned in a general education setting for more than half the day. But many special education students’ individualized needs cannot be met in a general education setting, and their achievement rates suffer. However, with the right services and instruction, special education students can thrive.
With ESAs, parents are in control of their child’s education and special education needs. With an ESA program, parents have the flexibility to pay for private school tuition, textbooks and materials, tutoring, homeschool expenses, online courses, or educational therapy. According to Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Associations, “Texas has more than 900 accredited private or independent schools and about 800 serve students with disabilities in some capacity” and “about 50 schools are designed specifically for students with disabilities.” With more choices, more students will flourish.
Families, community members, and lawmakers overwhelmingly support school choice in Texas. It is imperative to expand education freedom in Texas to better serve students with disabilities, and uplift all students and families who are denied an education best suited to their needs. It is time for Texas to join the growing number of states that choose educational freedom and fund students over systems.