Stop Special Needs Vouchers in Wisconsin!

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in Wisconsin since February 2011, and in Michigan just this month, it’s that what gets passed in the statehouse after the election can be devastatingly different than what was promised or campaigned upon or even hinted at before. We’ve also been hit with the following corollary: these things can happen with blinding speed.

Since the Nov. 6, 2012 election, the Walker administration has made no secret of their priority-plans to expand school vouchers in Wisconsin beyond the current voucher-cities of Milwaukee and Racine, but so far there hasn’t been a peep about a certain piece of voucher legislation that deservedly failed during the last legislative session: the ALEC-sourced “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act,” AB110/SB486.

But just because they haven’t said anything, doesn’t mean it’s not coming. There’s a consistent expectation among those “in the know” at the Capitol: the special needs vouchers are an unspoken priority for the Walker administration, and the voucher legislation will be back before we know it. (Sen. Kathleen Vinehout indicated as much yesterday over at the Uppity Wisconsin blog.) The only questions are when and how. Separate legislation? Rolled into an omnibus voucher expansion bill? Buried in the state budget? Inserted into the state budget later in the middle of the night, as happened with voucher expansion language in 2011?

The statewide special education vouchers, as proposed last session, would allow families of students with disabilities to take tax-dollars used to educate their child in public school, and spend them to send their child to private school instead. Any child with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at a public school would be eligible, regardless of income.

The proponents of these “scholarships” make it sound so good, but the promises are terribly hollow and the damage would be extensive, both for potential voucher students and for their classmates remaining in public schools. The multiple downsides to special needs vouchers, as proposed last session, have been terribly obscured — and many parents of students with disabilities in Wisconsin have not yet heard the real story.

First thing parents may not know about these vouchers:
Anyone who takes a special needs voucher would forfeit all their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
This includes things like the right to an enforceable IEP; the right to have access to qualified staff; the right to not be expelled for behavior related to the disability; the right to have a transition plan from school into adult life. Private voucher schools would not be required to provide even a single special-education professional or therapist!

Second related thing that parents don’t know:
If things go wrong at a voucher school, you have no right to stay if they want you to leave.
The public school has to educate your student; the private school has no such obligation. In fact, the private school could decide mid-year to send your student back to the public school… but keep the voucher money for the year. It’s a terrible double-whammy for the public schools, as they not only lose the resources with the voucher but then have to do their best for the student who returns without the money if the voucher school kicks him or her out.

In fact:
No voucher school is obligated to take your student in the first place.
We’ve already seen this in the longstanding Milwaukee “Parental Choice” voucher program, where they’re not-accepting students with disabilities in droves. Under 2% of current voucher students in Milwaukee have disabilities, while the figure for students with disabilities in the Milwaukee public schools is now approaching 20%! A similar dynamic would surely happen with statewide special needs vouchers, such that only those students with less-severe disabilities would be accepted, leaving the students with greater challenges to cope with a reduced pool of shared-resources back in their public school.

On top of all this:
The voucher schools would not have to accept your special needs voucher as full tuition.
Private schools could charge more if they choose, leaving lower-income families struggling or unable to make up the difference. So the vouchers would end up subsidizing wealthier families, all the way up to the wealthiest, including those who could easily afford private education on their own.

And finally, many parents have no idea:
There were NO disability-advocates at the table when this legislation was created.
No people with disabilities themselves, no parents, no disability organizations, no special educators. Nobody but corporate representatives dictating corporate profit-interests to state legislators — because this legislation comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and that’s how they operate.

Here is the original version of AB110, creating the Special Needs Scholarship Program.

And here, via The Heartland Institute, is the ALEC model legislation:
The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act — almost word-for-word the same, all the way through.

Fortunately, some parents of students with disabilities in Wisconsin (including myself) do know, and want as many others to understand what this legislation really means — before it’s sprung on us once more. A new statewide grassroots group is underway, entirely parent-led: Stop Special Needs Vouchers. The group is online on Facebook and with the Stop Special Needs Vouchers blog. There’s even an e-mail announcements list for breaking calls-to-action! To join, one can e-mail a request to (the admins request in turn that you include just a little information about yourself in the note, if you’re willing — e.g. “I’m a parent from Racine” or “I’m an educator from Marinette.”)

We know that, in additional to the near-unanimous opposition from Democratic state legislators, there are also Republican legislators with serious doubts about special needs vouchers. If we work together, we can stop this. But the time to organize is NOW — because if we wait until the legislation actually appears, it could indeed be too late.

(A version of this post appeared at Daily Kos.)


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