Moving from Caps to Freedom for Special Needs Children in Texas

January 24, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly is in the Houston Chronicle today on the U.S. Department of Education’s finding on the special education cap in Texas. Here’s a sample:

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.

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.

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North Carolina sets special needs children free, will Texas be next?

June 22, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The North Carolina legislature has passed an Education Savings Account program for children with disabilities as a part of the budget. If the budget becomes law as expected North Carolina will become the sixth state to join the ESA family.

Next month Texas legislators will return in special session, and Governor Greg Abbott has put a choice program for special needs children on the session call. Governor Abbott quite rightly has called for a choice program as part of an effort on the part of the state to dig itself out of a deep hole with special needs parents after 12 years of secretively running a de facto cap on the number of children who would receive services. Today in the Texas Tribune I make the case for why such a program would be especially beneficial to special needs children in Texas:

Put yourself in the shoes of a special needs student or parent for a moment: Would you desire a limited set of options and cold-blooded state policies discouraging districts from meeting your needs? Or would you desire a system in which you have additional options if things don’t work out?

Lawmakers can and should take other actions to improve the dismal state of special education in the Lone Star State. However, any reform effort should include the broadening of opportunities and should not preclude other efforts. After all, children with disabilities will only have the best opportunity to thrive and flourish when they have the ability to choose their service providers.

During the same period Texas bureaucrats covertly implemented a cap, Arizona lawmakers began increasing the options for special needs children. Let’s see how that has been working out for the special needs children:

K-12 reactionaries dragged us through the court system twice trying to stop us from offering options to these students in Arizona. We had to invent an entirely new form of school choice in order to ultimately prevail. It.was.worth.it.

 


Jason Riley: The Next Step is Education Savings Accounts

March 1, 2017

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason Riley weighs in on ESAs, federalism and parental choice in his Wall Street Journal column today:

After years of federal overreach through No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Obama administration “guidance” on lavatory usage, the states—where Republicans now occupy 33 of the 50 governors’ offices—are not only reasserting local control of K-12 education but reimagining it.

In addition to this charter progress, education reformers see prospects for more private school choice in the form of education savings accounts, or ESAs, which they describe as the next step in school choice. Under an ESA system, money that would otherwise go to funding a child’s public-school education is instead placed into a restricted-use bank account, from which the family can withdraw to spend on a variety of education-related services. Like vouchers, ESAs allow the money to follow the child. But ESAs don’t limit education options in the way that vouchers do. Instead, families can use money in the account for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, test preparation, transportation, Advanced Placement courses, online learning and even college savings accounts.

Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst at the research organization EdChoice, told me that along with allowing families to tailor spending to the education needs of their children, ESAs can control costs. “Moving from a coupon or voucher model to a bank-account model helps guard against tuition inflation like we’ve seen in Pell Grants,” he said. With ESAs, “there’s no price floor. If you’ve got a $5,000 voucher, no school is going to charge less than $5,000. With an ESA, there’s a lot more competition because private schools are not just competing against each other and against public schools but also competing against other sorts of education opportunities.” In other words, a parent with an ESA has the ability to hold both public and private schools accountable.


The Florida Legislature Renames Florida ESA for Senator Gardiner over his humble objection

October 20, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In this time of cynical politics it is refreshing to see something as fantastic as this floor debate in the Florida Senate.  Earlier this year the sponsor of a bill to expand Florida’s ESA program for special needs children offers an amendment on the floor to rename the program after Senate President Gardiner, a special needs father and advocate and the original sponsor of the legislation. Gardiner objected and appealed to the Senator to drop his amendment, noting that he had promised to send the bill over to the Florida House without amendment.  Not to be thwarted, the Senators secure a release from this promise from the Speaker of the Florida House, and then the Senate co-sponsors the amendment 39-0.

There is still some good in this world Mr. Frodo- and it is worth fighting for.

UPDATE: I am told that after all of this Senator Gardiner still refused to allow the program to be named after him, so the legislature named it after his family instead.


TXESA

September 20, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Business Leadership Council and Excel in Ed teamed up to publish a new white paper by yours truly called The Yellow Rose The Achilles Heel of Texas: Improving College Eligibility Rates through K-12 Savings AccountsBottom line: only a minority of Texas public school students get prepared for even a moderately selective college or university, and the percentage moves to catastrophically low levels when looking at the ethnic minority student groups which now constitute a large majority of Texas students. Meanwhile an annual 90k+ of new students per year has been driving resources out of the classroom and into debt, with no end in sight and an aging population that will slow revenue growth and create new costly problems in health care and pensions.

Judging from the number of applications received in the first year of NVESA, enrollment growth in Texas could be substantially slowed by a universal ESA program, which would give the public system a chance to focus resources away from the debt spiral of constantly building new facilities and then surrounding them with portable buildings. We could expect such a system to have the well-established positive effects for both participating and non-participating students, but also represents an opportunity for low-income students especially to save and build assets for future higher education expenses.

 

 


AFC video on the Need for Choice among Native American Children

August 11, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Just in case you need a reminder about just how horrible the federal government has been in education (and to Native Americans more generally) this new video serves as a helpful reminder. The American Federation for Children created the below video on Arizona Senator John McCain’s federal efforts and Arizona State Senator Carlyle Begay’s efforts to expand options for reservation children. I am rooting for America’s Underdogs:


Debunking a Brazen Lie about Education Savings Accounts

July 24, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

An article in the Texas Tribune regarding the push for education savings accounts contained an incredible whopper from the state teachers’ union lobbyist:

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Frankly, he should be embarrassed to be peddling a lie that is so easily debunked.

*All* of the existing ESA laws in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee contain financial accountability provisions to ensure that parents are spending the ESA funds only on approved educational expenses, which are clearly defined in law.

Like any government program (e.g., district schools), there is bound to be some amount of fraud. Fortunately, due to the tight financial controls, Arizona (the first state to enact an ESA law) has been able to recover misspent ESA funds. Moreover, an independent auditor recently determined than less than one percent of Arizona’s ESA funds were misspent, as the Goldwater Institute reports:

Last year, the state deposited nearly $26 million in families’ education savings accounts. The auditor uncovered misspending that totaled less than 0.8 percent of the distributed funds—an unacceptable amount, because any fraud involving taxpayer money and children is unacceptable. But it’s a manageable amount. The department of education should follow through on the auditor’s recommendations, as the agency stated it would in its response letter, and continue to improve the ways parents and students find quality learning opportunities with education savings accounts.

Arizona parents have spent more than 99% of ESA funds on approved educational products and services, and 100% of ESA parents surveyed in 2013 reported being satisfied with their child’s education.

The Texas teachers’ union needs a new talking point.