Having created progressive systems change in a variety of public policy arenas for over 27 years, many have asked me how I do it. There is no formula for achieving systems change. But my experience tells me that effective progressive systems change only happens if the following elements are present:
- Have the truth on your side. That requires assembling data and stories that back your cause. We did this in the 12 year campaign to pass a law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in Wisconsin’s public schools.
- Educate those who need the change, the media, and those who are the decision makers required to make the change. We accomplished this in 2011 by killing the Special Needs Voucher bill in Wisconsin despite a massive lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children (otherwise known as the lobbying arm of US Private Schools).
- Organize supporters (or opponents, depending on the issue). Especially when confronting powerful special interests, those seeking progressive systems change must have as many organized allies as possible. Convincing the Wisconsin legislature to add key special education provisions to last term’s Read to Lead legislation required great organization amongst progressive reading and disability groups.
- Litigate when necessary. The courts are the oft forgotten branch of systems change. Though years of unhelpful decisions often make systems change difficult in the courts, it still happens. Our class action settlement with the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), in our case against Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), created systems change in both of those massive bureaucracies.
- Be Persistent. Systems change is not for faint of heart. Nor is it for those who are not willing and able to work hard for many years. But remember, lack of persistence allows the other side to rule the day. It took us 10 years to get a hearing on our seclusion and restraint bill, and 12 years to pass it. We could have quit at any time before that and Wisconsin would continue not to have this important legislation.
- Use all the tools above, but use them strategically and effectively. Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively. Unprepared, ill-equipped advocates may cause more harm than good while fighting for a righteous cause. Getting Gov. Walker’s signature on our seclusion and restraint legislation required using all of these tools including strong media work and publishing Out of Darkness…Into the Light.
Many despair of the never ending legitimately awful things monied interests have foisted on the public. But there is nothing new about the rich and powerful exerting their will on those less wealthy and powerful than them. The challenge for those of us who want the world to be a better place is to apply these systems change principles consistently to push back on the never ending power grab by the select few.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.
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.