Educational Choice for Students with Special Needs: The Issue
A majority of states have some form of private school choice. Texas has none.
Every Texas child should be afforded the opportunity to select the educational options that best suit his or her individual needs. Children with special needs are a particularly vulnerable group in need of expanded, individualized options that will allow them a customized education designed to meet their unique needs.
Texas is behind many states in educational opportunity. In 2017, Arizona passed the most comprehensive choice program in the nation that would allow almost every student in the state the freedom to select the best educational program for their own educational needs. Arizona did this through an Education Savings Account (ESA) program, which they refer to as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. An ESA is innovative because it can be used for a variety of educational expenses throughout a school year, including therapy, tutoring, test fees, textbooks, or tuition. In addition, families can roll over unused ESA dollars from one school year to the next. Funds remaining upon graduation can often be used for higher education. Modeled after Health Savings Accounts, the ESA concept provides an offset to many of the third-party pay problems inherent in education today. Figure 4 illustrates how ESAs might work.
Half the nation’s state legislatures have established educational choice programs.
ESAs have been established by legislatures in Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. Arizona’s program is the leading model currently in operation because of its near-universal availability. Arizona students are eligible for the program if they have been enrolled in public schools for at least 100 days of the prior fiscal year and must be a member of a limited number of populations, among them children with an active IEP or Section 504 plan. Over the next four school years, all Arizona students will become eligible as long as they meet the 100-day requirement. Arizona has had an ESA program since 2011, and parents have taken full advantage of the program’s flexibility. About one-third of ESA funds are expended on multiple items; in other words, a sizable number of parents choose not to use the entire ESA on tuition.
Arizona special needs students were the first to be given access in 2011. In 2015, they comprised 58 percent of the 2,406 Arizona ESA holders. Parent satisfaction with the program is notably high: a survey of over half of participating families in the 2012-2013 school year found that 71 percent were “very satisfied,” 19 percent were “satisfied,” and 10 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” No respondents registered negative or neutral feedback.
A survey of Florida’s current and previous McKay scholarship programs (an educational choice program for children with special needs) found similarly high levels of parent satisfaction. A total of “92.7% of current McKay participants are satisfied or very satisfied with their McKay schools; only 32.7% were similarly satisfied with their public schools.” The researchers also included parents no longer participating in the program to see if dissatisfaction with the program was higher in that group. They found that, “Perhaps the strongest evidence regarding the McKay program’s performance is that over 90% of parents who have left the program believe it should continue to be available to those who wish to use it.”
For the general student population, student performance improves as a result of educational choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, of 18 empirical studies on this topic, 14 found that student achievement improved and two found no measurable impact. The two studies that found a negative impact were both of the program in Louisiana, known for its overbearing regulations on participating private schools. Choice also has been shown to improve public school performance. Of 33 empirical studies surveyed by the Friedman Foundation, 31 found that public schools improve when students are allowed a choice. Only one found no measurable improvement and only one found a negative impact.
We are unaware of studies examining student performance in relation to educational choice strictly within the special needs student population. However, students with special needs would have been eligible for many of the programs studied above.