Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wisconsin Revives Bill to Provide Private School Vouchers to Special Needs Children

Special education advocates are protesting the revival of a controversial bill in the Wisconsin legislature to give students with disabilities vouchers to attend private school. Four Wisconsin legislators announced a bill Tuesday that would give up to $14,000 per student for children with disabilities to attend private school. The legislators said that the vouchers would allow special needs students to leave failing schools and instead attend schools of their choice. Parents and advocates for special needs children have formed a grassroots effort called Stop Special Needs Vouchers (SSNV). SSNV says that the vouchers "would funnel critical taxpayer funding out of public schools and into private voucher schools which lack vital accountability." The group argues that the bill would exempt private voucher schools from complying with the standards in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and may leave children with disabilities without a school if the school cannot meet students' needs or suddenly closes, as Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy recently did. The group says that the LifeSkills Academy example is particularly important because as a private voucher school, it received $2 million in taxpayer funds then closed abruptly after only one of its students showed proficiency in reading on standardized tests in two years. The school's unannounced closure left its students scrambling to find new schools in the middle of the academic year. (LifeSkills' owners have moved on to open a special needs voucher school in Florida, where legislation for private school scholarships for special education students was passed in 2001.) 

Wisconsin's previous attempt to provide private school vouchers to special needs children came under sharp scrutiny prompting a lawsuit and an advisory letter from the DOJ to Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction in 2013 warning that "[t]he state cannot, by delegating the education function to private voucher schools, place students beyond the reach of the federal laws that require Wisconsin to eliminate disability discrimination in its administration of public programs." The measure was shelved then because of strong opposition. A paper by the National Council on Disability, School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities, supports SSVN's concerns. Two findings from the paper note the difficulty of using vouchers in private schools if the vouchers do not cover the cost of needed supports in students' Individualized Education Programs:"[1] Because vouchers can only cover a portion of costs of special education over and above the cost of private school tuition in many cases, particularly for students with moderate, low-incidence and severe disabilities, such programs may benefit only the affluent who can afford to supplement vouchers to cover actual costs. Since school districts will lose students and a proportion of state funds due to transfers to private schools, it is possible that public schools will be left to serve only poor students with more significant disabilities, and at a reduced level of financial support. ... [2] The principle of school choice, and voucher programs in particular, have not been adequately shown to be internally consistent and mutually reinforcing with regard to the other three principles of IDEA reauthorization (accountability for results, increasing local flexibility, and a focus on what works) outlined by the U.S. Department of Education." Read more about the Wisconsin bill here.

State law developments | Permalink


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