School Vouchers Top Legislative Priority List, But Will It Pass This Session?

Dec 8, 2016

When state lawmakers meet in January they will once again square off over using public school dollars to pay for attending private schools.   Opponents of that practice call it a voucher program.  Supporters tend to call it school choice.  And the debate during this next session will include special needs children.

In a small coffee shop on the west side of Round Rock Leslie Polvado takes a break from her hectic schedule.   The 42-year-old mom runs a non-profit that promotes independent living for people with special needs.  She also home schools her 12-year-old autistic son, Grayson.

Round Rock mom, Leslie Polvado
Credit Ryan Poppe

“By looking at him, you would actually probably never know it, unless you knew what to look for,” Palvado says.

Polvado says Grayson used to attend public school but the teachers couldn’t handle his disruptive behavior – like talking to himself and others in class.

“His school would call me up and say, 'He is doing this, and I would say, well is anyone in danger? No. Is he causing a major disruption? No.  But, he’s not doing his work. Well, he does have on-task reminders as an accommodation and if he’s balking it, send it home for homework. I’m certified to teach, I can help him with his homework,'” Palvado explains.

Polvado says she quit her job as a special education teacher and began homeschooling because she couldn’t afford tuition at a private school which would cost up to $10,000 a year. 

“Unless you have the funding for private school or you can get past the wait list and get in a charter your options are pretty much possibly an inter-district transfer or home schooling,” Palvado says.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, believes public school dollars should be used to educate children like Grayson in the program that suits their needs,  even if it’s in a private school.

“Traditional public schools do the best they can, but we all know that if you have a specialty of care or a specialty of education for one type of specific student you’re likely to have a better mastery of how education needs to be administered,” Campbell says.

The state gives a public school an average of $5,200 each year for each child it educates.  Campbell plans to file legislation that would allow that money to follow a special needs child to whatever school the child decides to attend. 

“Those dollars are attached to that child whether it’s in a traditional public school or a special needs school, so the state would still be doing their duty but at least the child would be put into an education system that would be best for that child,” Campbell says.

The Texas State Teachers Association has consistently opposed shifting public dollars away from traditional public schools. 

“If Texas was were fully funding public education and they wanted to use additional resources for this, then I don’t know if we’d have much of a problem with this, but the problem is we’re already starting from a deficit for funding public education in Texas,” says Noel Candelaria, the association’s president.

Candelaria is a former special education teacher and says he’d be in favor of allowing local school districts to decide if a voucher program like Campbell’s would benefit their local communities.

Melissa Bodenger, West Lake Hills mom
Credit Ryan Poppe

But many parents with special needs children, like Melissa Bodenger, who’ve struggled with traditional public schools see a need for Campbell’s bill. 

“He did not understand the most basic of concepts, there was no categorization of the world for him, so he could organize his world,” Bodenger says.

Bodenger is talking about her 9-year-old autistic son, Josh He became agitated with the active, noisy environment of his public school in West Lake Hills.  He’d scream, kick, hit and bite others.

“We ended up having to change him to a school that specialized in helping kids with speech language and developmental disorders but it’s what he needed,” Bodenger says.

Josh, Bodenger's nine year old autistic son.
Credit Ryan Poppe

That private school costs Bodenger over $9,000 a year.

“If you take a regular middle class family and they have an autistic child, they are now no longer a middle-class family, their standard of living drops enormously,” Bodenger explains.

The Conference of State Legislatures says 11 states allow school vouchers to be used  for special needs or low income children.

Sen. Donna Campbell is among Texas lawmakers who want this state to become the 12th