Why Special Needs Vouchers are Still a Bad Idea

Although Democrats in Wisconsin celebrated the victories of President Obama and Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, Republicans rejoiced over recapturing the State Senate.  Republican control over the full legislature means many things, but as Gov. Walker recently signaled in his speech at the Reagan Library in California, among his top priorities is to expand Wisconsin’s voucher programs, including creation of a Special Needs Voucher program. During the last legislative session, Tea Party member Rep. Michelle Litjens sponsored AB 110, which would have created Special Needs Vouchers in Wisconsin.  Although she retired after just one term, the ascendency of Rep. Robin Vos to the speakership assures that his party will reintroduce some form of that legislation, which did pass the Assembly, but failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate, as there was sufficient moderate Republican opposition to allow Sen. Luther Olsen to decline to call a vote in the Senate Education Committee. As a key leader in Wisconsin’s special education movement, I was there every step of the way to raise awareness and help defeat AB 110 last session.  This included numerous meetings with Rep. Vos, Sen. Olsen, and American  Federation for Children (a/k/a school privatization through vouchers is our mission) lobbyists former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Republican spokesperson Brian Pleva. Among the reasons, a coalition of disability groups defeated AB 110 last session was that not a single disability group supported the measure.  Although the proponents of the bill traded on some parents’ legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education programs, these parents, whose children already attended private schools and therefore would receive no benefit from these vouchers, were not persuasive enough to get this bill through the Senate. Why are these vouchers such a bad idea, if parents have legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education in public school?

  • No voucher bills force private schools to accept children with disabilities.  In fact, Wisconsin’s current voucher programs have a long track record of failing to serve all but a few children with disabilities, which is currently being investigated by the US Dept. of Justice.
  • AB 110 did not even require that voucher schools provide children with disabilities any special education or related services such as physical therapy or assistive technology.  Even the somewhat improved Senate version, SB 486, sponsored by Sen. Vukmir, though it required implementation of the child’s IEP, failed to require private schools to employ any special educators or therapists.
  • Parents who choose a special needs voucher give up all the rights they have under state and federal special education law, the most powerful education law in the nation.  Thus, if things go wrong in the voucher school, a parent’s only recourse is to return their child to the public school they were unhappy with initially.
  • The voucher program takes money out of public schools, hurting the remaining children with disabilities, and worse yet, does not provide sufficient funding to educate children with disabilities in private school.
  • AB 110 had no income cap, or tuition cap.  This means that millionaires could have their children educated in private schools at state expense, and low income families could not use the vouchers because tuition would likely be higher than the amount of the voucher.
  • These vouchers will likely result in private schools creaming the least disabled students who cost the last to educate, thereby segregating the most disabled students in public schools, who have been stripped of funding by this program, to properly educate them.
  • These programs guarantee that once a child takes one of these vouchers, that child can keep it until they graduate or turn 21.  This means that regardless of whether the child needs special education anymore, unlike the public school requirement which calls for reevaluation of that status every 3 years and generally removes 1/3 of such students from special education upon reevaluation, once in private school, these children will maintain disability status at public expense for the rest of their educational career.

Hopefully, disability groups will coalesce once again to block passage of a special needs voucher program in Wisconsin.  To do, however, they will need to work closely with moderate Senate Republicans, including Senators Olsen, Schultz and Cowles.  The American Federation for Children will come bearing gifts for Wisconsin legislators who vote to create this program, so the battle will be fierce.

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