Education savings accounts give families more options
The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a finding against the Texas school system regarding the denial of special education services. The department’s investigation broadly confirmed the conclusions reached by the Houston Chronicle’s exposé on a covert effort by the Texas Education Agency to deny services to children with disabilities.
Moving forward, lawmakers should make the families of special-needs students less dependent on bureaucracies by giving them greater control over their education as part of a solution.
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The Department of Education found that state and district officials actively subverted federal special education law for students with disabilities by creating incentives for districts to deny services. Between 2004 and 2016, Texas public schools added more than a million students, but the total number of students receiving special-needs services actually dropped during this period.
A 2004 Texas Education Agency Policy led schools to illegally delay or deny special education services to students statewide. The TEA created a de-facto cap on the percentage of students who could receive special education services of 8.5 percent. The agency subjected districts that went above this cap with bureaucratic harassment and penalties. This cap subverted federal civil rights statutes for students with disabilities that create the duty for public schools to identify and serve all students with disabilities.
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No justification for an arbitrary cap has been offered, and there is no record of any public hearings or debate on the policy. The TEA covertly implemented the policy, and sadly, many districts implemented the policy without complaint.
Many school officials, to be fair, accepted the harassment of TEA to do what was best to serve their students. Many selfless and hard-working people dedicate their careers to special education under very trying circumstances. The record, however, is clear: Many officials meekly complied with the misguided policy, and sadly, no one mustered the courage to spark a public debate on TEA’s practices.
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This sad affair reminds us of aspects of human nature we might feel more comfortable forgetting. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram ran a series of fake experiments to test the willingness of people to obey an authority figure in the early 1960s. Milgram’s experiments asked students to administer what seemed to be electric shocks to subjects who were actors. Disturbingly, a large percentage of people were willing to administer what seemed to be fatal shocks if an authority figure told them to do so.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath took prompt action to end the TEA practices after the Chronicle revealed them. Education officials, however, have a long road to walk to restore broken trust. One of the best steps policymakers could take would be to make the families of special-needs children more independent of bureaucracies.
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Several states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee – have given the families of special-needs students the ability to control their own education destiny by passing Education Savings Account programs. ESAs give these students an opt-out of the public school system in lieu of a state-funded account families can use to pay for individual public school courses, therapies, certified tutors, private school tuition and other expenses.
ESAs give special-needs families the opportunity to customize the education of their child. Families participating in these programs report sky-high levels of satisfaction, and two of the pioneering states that have been expanding options for special-needs students the longest – Arizona and Florida – have also demonstrated some of the strongest academic improvement for special-needs students remaining in the public schools.
Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The Texas school system silently denied needed services to vulnerable families for 12 years. If Texas wants to turn the corner from this shameful episode, lawmakers should set the families of special-needs children free to seek an education from those who are willing to provide it.
Ladner is the senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute and co-author of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform.”