Threading the Systems Change Needle

Lost in the after midnight budget bombshell dropped by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on our public education system earlier this week, was a small, but important civil rights victory for children with disabilities and their parents. No, it certainly was not the horrific stealth passage of a horrible Special Needs Voucher system that promises to rob children with disabilities of their hard won civil right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which parents of children with disabilities and their allies have successfully fought for the past 4 years.

Rather, with one small amendment, the Wisconsin Open Enrollment program, which allows students to transfer to other public school districts that may better suit their needs, moved one step closer to ending its statutorily sanctioned discrimination against children with disabilities. Remarkably, ever since this program began in the 1998-99 school year, the law permitted the rejection of children with disabilities who were considered an “undue financial burden.” 

The Open Enrollment program has been very popular all over the state. In its first year, state data shows that fewer than 2,500 students transferred to new school districts under this program. But, 15 years later, in 2013-14, nearly 50,000 students availed themselves of this flexible approach to public education.

Yet, due to the outright discrimination against children with disabilities whom school districts deem an undue financial burden, each year thousands of such children cannot use open enrollment to attend another school district like their non-disabled peers. I have fought this discriminatory law on behalf of dozens of children for nearly 20 years. Although, I have successfully pushed back on the law in court, despite numerous requests, until now, I have not been able to convince the legislature to rid Wisconsin of this statutory discrimination.

The opportunity to do so arose out of my role as a board member for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin. Shortly after joining the board, I worked with advocates from the Autism Society of Wisconsin (ASW) and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin to develop an advocacy agenda. We joined forces with many other disability advocates to help preserve Wisconsin’s self-directed long term care program, IRIS, from Gov.Walker’s budget chopping block. But, we also wanted to make progress for children in our schools in a very challenging legislative environment. I suggested that there might be an opportunity to thread the systems change needle by approaching Sen. Luther Olsen, the Senate Education Committee Chair, who serves as the key Senate Education member on the Joint Finance Committee to see if we could get him to sponsor a budget amendment to end the “undue financial burden” Open Enrollment discrimination against children with disabilities.

So, I made an appointment for the ASW Executive Director, Kirsten Cooper, and I to meet with Sen. Olsen. It was a short, but productive meeting. Almost immediately, he agreed to insert a budget amendment that would end nearly 20 years of state sanctioned discrimination. We thanked him, and periodically checked in with Sen. Olsen’s staff to make sure he would stay true to his word. Two nights ago, buried in the bombshell of voucher expansion and charter school takeovers, Sen. Olsen kept his promise, and the amendment to end nearly 20 years of discrimination was passed by the Joint Finance Committee. We have thanked him and will continue to monitor this small, but important piece of progress as the budget process continues to work its way through the legislature.


In 30 years of systems change advocacy, I have learned that success is often achieved in small but important ways. Knowing how to thread the systems change advocacy needle helps advocates identify the time, place and method for achieving such victories.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.