Dan Patrick Offers Vouchers as Solution to Special Ed Failures that He Helped Create

Dan Patrick
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speaks in support of “school choice” at a rally on the South Steps of the Capitol.  Lyanne A. Guarecuco

You might say the true test of a politician’s character is what they do when there aren’t any investigative reporters around, but, failing that, what they do after one does show up. With that in mind, let’s check in again with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s office for another fun chapter in Accountability and the Texas Legislature, a growing tome that serves as the opposite of a self-help book.

One of the most striking stories in the run-up to this year’s legislative session was the Houston Chronicle’s look into how the state treats special ed students. (The Observer also reported on the story in January 2016.) In short, in 2004, as part of yet another round of budget cuts, the Texas Education Agency established an arbitrarily low benchmark — 8.5 percent of students — for how many special needs kids each school district should serve. It worked as a cap, each year railroading tens of thousands of families who, in any other state, would have been able to get their kids into special ed.

In the weeks after the revelations, Patrick expressed outrage, casting the problem in stark moral terms. “If a student feels, a family feels they need a better opportunity, they should have that right,” he said. “And especially, students with disabilities and autism, to be trapped in a school that can’t help you get over a disability, is a sin. And we’re going to stand up for that community.”

Wait, I got my notes mixed up. That’s from a speech Patrick gave to Republican activists in 2012. He wasn’t talking about improving the way public schools treat special needs students, he was talking about the need to give them vouchers. Vouchers, which allow parents to use state funding for private-school tuition, have been Patrick’s No. 1 passion since he first won office. Time after time, he’s hyped them as the catch-all solution to the lack of access to quality special education.

Here’s the strange thing: Patrick’s remarks in 2012 were made while he was the chair of the Senate Committee on Education. He held immense influence to right wrongs in state education policy, including the one he was highlighting. He was correct, in other words, that there were insufficient opportunities for special needs kids in public schools. Why? Well, in great part because of that 8.5 percent cap set by the Texas Education Agency, an agency he had been specifically empowered to oversee.

Even if you’re inclined to think Patrick and his staff didn’t know about the cap, and should get a pass for not knowing, his reaction to the revelations is odd at best. Here’s the statement his office provided on October 31, as the Chronicle stories gained steam:

“Helping children with disabilities has been a priority for the Lt. Governor even before he was elected to public office and he was very concerned to learn about prior policies,” Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said in a statement. “Our office is working very closely with the Commissioner of Education to ensure that students are identified and served appropriately.”

Note how Patrick’s aide skips right over Dan Patrick’s time in office. And he describes what is an ongoing problem as “prior policies.” It’s the same way lawmakers reacted to a similar investigative series revealing horrific problems with Child Protective Services. The unwillingness to take some small measure of responsibility is bizarre. Actually, it’s grotesque. A crisis hits, and every powerful lawmaker turns into Captain Renault, shockedpositively shocked — to learn that dysfunction has been going on in their establishment.

How will Patrick help special needs kids this session? It’s vouchers again! Why are vouchers always the solution? Disabled kids are sympathetic, and their parents easy to mobilize, so “school choice” groups recommend highlighting them as a way to overcome resistance to vouchers in state legislatures. That’s how they get their foot in the door.

In 2015, a report commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice surveyed legislators and concluded in part that “focus[ing] on special needs students is a model that seems to work as it minimizes resistance,” particularly because “parents of autistic children [are] seen as a strong potential network of support.”

On January 24, Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott spoke at a school choice rally at the Capitol. In the crowd was a mother named Anne Wylie, who told the Texas Tribune that “her daughter’s public school ignored her learning disability and pushed her through the school system.” She had to put her daughter in private school to get her the help she needed.

Think about that. The state’s own malice, presided over by the people who spoke at the school choice rally, put countless parents in Wylie’s position. And now those same politicians are offering a dubious solution to the problem they were complicit in creating, in part because consultants have told them that angry parents make good political fuel. It’s enough to make one feel downright cynical about state government.

It would be one thing if vouchers demonstratively helped a state’s special needs children as a whole, but there’s thin evidence for that. In fairness, many of the programs in question are new. But there are many potential pitfalls that advocates have long been concerned about. The most obvious problem is that there’s not a huge number of private schools catering to learning disabilities, particularly for parents who want their kids educated alongside non-special needs children.

There’s also the problem that vouchers are used more by the rich, many of whom have kids in private school anyway. So the state ends up subsidizing wealthier families while, as the National Council on Disabilities predicted in 2003, “public schools will be left to serve only poor students with more significant disabilities, and at a reduced level of financial support.” That’s exactly what happened in Arizona when it implemented a voucher program for special needs kids in 2014. And the schools that suffered the biggest funding losses as a result were well-performing schools, not poorly performing ones.

Here’s a kicker: Last month, newly minted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a lifelong school choice advocate, was quizzed by senators about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Passed in 1975, the law is the cornerstone of parents’ right to demand their special needs children have access to education.

DeVos seemed to be completely unfamiliar with it. One senator asked her if she thought disabled children in taxpayer-funded private schools should have the same guaranteed rights under IDEA that they do in public schools. At first, she refused to answer. Then, she opined that the regulation of special education “is a matter that’s best left to the states.” In other words, to TEA and lawmakers like Patrick.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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