Inaccessible private schools or underfunded public schools: Texas’ disabled students have few options with no change in sight

Two window decals are shown on Laurie Sharp's van on Sep. 9, 2023. The stickers reference Logan's wheelchair.
Two window decals are shown on van on Sep. 9, 2023. The stickers reference the occupant’s wheelchair. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

As lawmakers consider creating a school voucher system, one set of Texas students — disabled kids — could face larger fallout. Where laws still require the worst public schools to provide special education, there’s no similar obligation for private schools.

The proposed voucher bills in both the Senate and House to funnel taxpayer dollars to families to pay for private school tuition could put accessibility at risk for the more than 700,000 students enrolled in Texas’ public special education programs.

No one feels these programs are perfect: families of disabled children often have to fight for equipment, resources and inclusion. But the system of checks and balances on public schools gives them a place to start.

The federal laws that give disabled students a right to education, though, don’t apply in private schools. And for the fraction of private schools that do specialize in serving children with different types of disabilities, several obstacles stand in the way of making it through their doors.

For one, there are only 67 of these schools in total. A majority of them are concentrated in urban areas: the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Harris County and San Antonio.

To arrive at this number, The Texas Tribune used data provided by Texas Private School Accreditation Commission and Texas Private School Association and found schools that offer programs for students with special needs or those who are misbehaving or struggling with dangerous behaviors programs. Those programs were then confirmed through each school’s website or by phone.

Many of them have limits on the types of disabilities they can accommodate. Several of these schools explicitly state they prefer students with “above average to average intelligence” on their websites. And if one school can only serve students with dyslexia and not those with behavioral or complex medical issues, they still exclude countless other disabled students in their surrounding areas.

Finally, many of them would still be too expensive for most Texans even with the voucher system in place, as their tuitions range as high as $40,000 per year. And for those who could afford these prices, student class sizes are limited, many averaging less than 200 seats per school.

As the debate has continued over whether to implement education savings accounts, some lawmakers have touted these schools as a potential alternative to the shortcomings of public special education.

Throughout the years, Texas and the federal government have funneled billions of taxpayer dollars into public special education, reaching more than $5 billion in 2020. But in rural areas and big cities alike, public schools have still struggled to meet the needs of their special education students.

“Texas’ special education system, as a whole, is failing,” said David DeMatthews, an associate professor for the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Educational Leadership. “It's a long-term, pressing concern, and there's a lot of different facets to it. But overall, the state is not doing a good job.”

Part of the problem is the slow-changing cultural attitude toward disabled people as a whole, advocates say.

The Senate voucher bill, which would give families $8,000 a year to pay for private school tuition and was approved earlier this month, states private schools can reserve “not more than 20%” of spots for students with disabilities, but advocates said they saw this as a cap. The House bill, a compromise that includes boosting public education funding, would give parents 75% of the average amount that each school receives in per-student funding. Gov. Greg Abbott has called the plan "insufficient."

“There's an ideology that the market will somehow stop private schools from discriminating against children with disabilities that may cost more money to educate,” DeMatthews said.

The state of Texas public special education

When Dominic Shindel started first grade, his doctors recommended he receive a computer for school. Using his hands to write was a challenge: He was born with arthrogryposis, which limits his movement, and he uses a wheelchair.

His mother, Celeste Picaso, said instead of receiving a laptop, the school reduced his workload. In some ways, it’s helped. In others, it’s kept him behind his peers, she said.

It’s just one example of how the public schools in Sanderson — a town of around 850 people four hours west of San Antonio — lacked the resources to help her son, she said. Between instances of bullying and mixed treatment from faculty, Shindel has struggled with getting the same level of education as everyone around him.

“My son's school bus, the hydraulics have been messed up on the lift system for years,” Picaso said. “There have been times he's been late to school or missed school because the bus has not been able to get him.”

Over decades of limited funding and mismanagement, public school districts have struggled to identify and provide resources for a consistently growing population that has added 200,000 students in the past five years, said Steven Aleman, senior policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas.

Since 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has required public schools to accommodate disabled students and provide “individualized education plans” to best meet their needs. It’s a law advocates call the “bare minimum.”

But Texas has struggled to always comply with all of its requirements.

Countless students didn’t receive accommodations they needed between 2004 and 2017 because the state capped the number of special education students districts were allowed to identify at 8.5%, far below the current national average around 15%.

In the years since, federal officials have slapped the state with reform initiatives. And now, around 11.6% of students in the state are enrolled in special education in schools, according to TEA’s 2022 reports.

But things haven’t necessarily improved. Federal officials’ most recent evaluation of Texas special education graded it as “needs assistance,” the same score it’s received for at least the last three years. This is equivalent to “a D or an F in a class,” DeMatthews said.

Just earlier this month, the Texas Education Agency appointed monitors to oversee Austin Independent School District’s special education department.

The current funding system, in which the state school funding pays schools per individual, doesn’t account for the intensity of care some students might need and is partially to blame for many districts’ struggles, Aleman said.

Schools are required to spend at least 55% of special education funding on the programs themselves, according to Texas Education Code. In rare situations, a district can use special education funding to pay for a student to attend nearby private schools or transfer them to a different district.

“There's a financial barrier, quite frankly, for districts to do everything they're being called upon to do,” Aleman said. “This formula has existed for over three decades, and is now very antiquated. We believe it does not efficiently provide resources for school districts to provide the services students with disabilities need.”

State lawmakers went as far as creating a special commission to find solutions for special education funding, and their 2022 recommendations included increasing money for transporting students, hiring qualified teachers and certifying teachers.

But only one of their recommendations — the last, most controversial, and favored above all by Gov. Greg Abbott — has seen light outside the House chamber: education savings accounts, known by many as vouchers.

Picaso said vouchers don’t appeal to her. Between living hundreds of miles away from the nearest private school, being a low-income parent and having a solid support system based out of Sanderson, she said she wouldn’t see any improvements.

“There's basic equipment that I've been fighting for years to get my son — something as basic as a lift system, since he can't bend his legs, he can't get off the floor,” Picaso said. “But even though it is a time-consuming process, and there are things that could be changed within the special education system, I still don't feel vouchers are going to be beneficial.”

How vouchers would, or wouldn’t, help

For families in a city like Austin, vouchers might make a tremendous difference — if they can afford them.

“It’s not armageddon,” said David Beinke, a special education advocate who assists families across the state, including Picaso’s. “If you're in a metropolitan area — DFW, San Antonio, Houston, Harris County, Travis County, maybe even El Paso — you have the capacity and expertise of schools that may be able to assist.”

But the lack of transparency at private schools has parents and advocates worried, he said.

“Even though [public] schools are really, really bad, we still have opportunities: we can file a complaint with TEA and file a complaint with [Office of Civil Rights]. With a due process hearing, we can go to mediation. We can get regional service centers to help us out. It’s incredible, we have all that,” Beinke said. “But once we get to a private provider or private school, we lose that oversight.”

Linda Litzinger, public policy specialist at Texas Parent to Parent, said her organization serves around 14,000 families and she has heard many stories of disabled students currently trying out private schooling who face challenges.

“It sounds so positive at the beginning,” she said. “But in about two months, it falls apart because they're not getting their [individualized education plan] supports.”

Some of the private schools geared toward disabled students still emphasize using individualized education plans, or IEPs, on their websites. But Litzinger said these extra-specialized schools might not be useful to disabled students who take general classes at public schools and need fewer accommodations.

Lyn Pollard, a Dallas mother of a dyslexic child, said she has worried about certain religiously-owned schools also not being subject to a title of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s something she noticed while attending church, she said.

“What I’ve learned is, if there isn't a law — which is basic — but if there isn’t a law or rule, then there's no accountability,” Pollard said. “And it's really difficult to advocate for disability access when there is no accountability.”

Beinke said vouchers could be a single solution to navigating special education for some families, but not all — and they still leave many issues untouched.

“The kid who has a disability, he doesn't care who the governor is,” Beinke said. “What he cares about is if he can be able to stay with his peers and learn.”

Yuriko Schumacher contributed to this story.

Neelam Bohra is a disability reporting fellow, covering accessibility issues affecting Texans. She was a member of the 2022-23 New York Times Fellowship class. Her fellowship is a partnership between The New York Times, The Texas Tribune and the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. The fellowship is funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Disclosure: The New York Times and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.