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To help special needs students, end voucher expansion

Letter to the Editor, Capital Times, 27 November 2013

Dear Editor: In her recent letter, Rachel Angel overlooked some troubling issues when she suggested using vouchers to educate students with special needs, on the cheap.

Unfortunately, many Wisconsinites are not aware that students with special needs who attend private voucher schools give up their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Not only that, voucher schools don’t have to provide special education staff and aren’t legally required to meet the student’s educational needs as the law requires of the public schools.

In addition, public schools are open to all regardless of disability, while many private schools prefer to educate only the less-challenging students, leading to widespread cherry-picking. The students with the more significant challenges remain in the public schools, with ever-shrinking resources as our tax dollars flow away into unaccountable voucher schools along with selected students.

For the well-being of our most vulnerable students, Wisconsin needs to end the voucher expansion, and strongly resist any further attempts to create a special needs voucher program.

Joanne Juhnke
Steering committee chair, Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin Madison

Fitzgerald says special needs voucher expansion coming back.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers celebrated the removal of the harmful special needs voucher proposal from the Wisconsin state budget proposal… but before the budget was even signed, the Wisconsin Reporter ran a story indicating that the proposal was slated to return in the fall.

Fitzgerald Says Special Needs Voucher Expansion Coming Back

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, left the door open for expansion of school choice for special needs students, saying the Senate will take a closer look at a controversial initiative that was left out of the Republican budget proposal this fall. 

“We didn’t address the special needs question,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Thursday in Mayville. “I think the reason for that is because there’s two different approaches. One is to address it with a scholarship, a voucher. The other is to address it with open enrollment.”

Disability rights advocates, who opposed the scholarship, are also trying to change open enrollment rules. 

“We are looking at ways to make the open enrollment law more usable for kids with special needs,” Monica Murphy, managing attorney for schools and civil rights at Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office, previously told Wisconsin Reporter. “They are covered under it, but there’s a lot of difficulty. It’s not quite as available for kids with special needs as regular kids.” 

Parents of special needs students who opposed the scholarship argued that the proposal deserved a public hearing and to go through the legislative process.


June 6, 2013

Wisconsin Families Appreciate JFC Removal of Special Needs Vouchers, 
Will Continue to Advocate for Students with Disabilities 

Madison, WI – All across Wisconsin, the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers welcomed the good news on Wednesday morning that the Joint Finance Committee had removed the harmful special needs vouchers proposal from the state budget. The special needs vouchers would have funneled critical taxpayer funding out of public schools into private voucher schools that lack accountability and are not required to abide by the rights and protections of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Joanne Juhnke, parent advocate and chair of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee, promised that the group would continue its vigilance as well as working proactively toward improved inclusive public education. “We appreciate that legislators listened to families from across the state, expressing our concerns for the negative impact the special needs vouchers would have had for students with disabilities, and we intend to continue to work together on behalf of our children and their fellow students,” she said.

According to Pam DeLap, a parent who drove from Oshkosh to Madison to witness the late-night JFC deliberations, the removal of the special needs vouchers was welcome but grave concerns remain. “The defeat of the special needs vouchers is a victory for our children and the investment the state of Wisconsin makes in them through their public school education, but the statewide expansion of unaccountable school vouchers is a concern for students with disabilities as well. We heard in committee debate that voucher schools do not require certified special education teachers and need not abide by Wisconsin’s regulations on seclusion and restraint.”

“Wisconsin’s families and disability organizations have opposed the special needs vouchers from the beginning,” said Terri Hart-Ellis, a Whitefish Bay parent who also serves on the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee. “We spoke up about the segregation and other harm that special needs vouchers can do, and the finance committee listened. We hope other states are watching.”

The commitment and dedication of Stop Special Neeeds Vouchers to our children, our students, and our collective Wisconsin future will remain constant and unwavering. For more information on the parent group Stop Special Needs Vouchers, see our Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers


No Vouchers Press Conference-Wisconsin State Capitol

Mary Swifka–New London Parent May 22, 2013

Good afternoon. I am a parent of a child with a developmental disability and I oppose the statewide special needs voucher provision in the state budget. Our son Noah is a freshman in the New London school district. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Noah has had the right to learn in a non-segregated setting while benefiting from professional special education teachers and paraprofessionals. He has access to assistive technologies, support from therapists, and thrives in a safe learning environment.
Parents fought long and hard for decades to ensure their children were given those rights, but every one of those rights goes out the window if a family accepts a special needs voucher to a private school. Private schools offer limited accountability for educational quality or outcomes. They’re not required to have professional special education teachers and therapists on staff, and laws that protect children from seclusion and restraint do not apply in private schools. And private schools don’t have to accept and serve students of all abilities the way that public schools do.
Special needs vouchers must come out of the budget.  They are a bad choice for our children and a bad choice for Wisconsin.  

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Press Release – May 2

The following is a press release from Stop Special Needs Vouchers released on May 2, 2013.

Parents Agree With U.S. Department of Justice:
Vouchers Not Working for Students with Disabilities in Wisconsin

Madison – The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers applaud a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, communicating federal concern for discrimination against students with disabilities in the Milwaukee/Racine Parental Choice Program. The measures needed to assess and eliminate this discrimination, parents say, are so major that any new vouchers in Wisconsin should be considered out of the question. Stop Special Needs Vouchers renews the call to remove the special needs voucher proposal from the state budget, citing harmful and discriminatory implications for students and advocating that such a significant change to the education of students with disabilities must be debated in a standing education committee. The special needs voucher proposal was also confirmed as “non-fiscal policy” last week by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, and legislators from both parties have questioned whether policy of this nature belongs in a budget bill.

A number of members of Stop Special Needs Vouchers formed their opinions on vouchers based in part on discriminatory experiences when they tried to access education for their children in private schools. Lennise Vickers of Milwaukee experienced “smoke and mirrors” recruiting practices when she briefly enrolled her daughter Aquila, who has Emotional Behavior Disorder, in a Milwaukee voucher school several years ago. “I felt like I was duped. The voucher school teacher had no desire or training to help my daughter. When voucher schools take students with disabilities and public money, they need to follow every rule and guideline to make sure they are educated – and that’s not happening.”

Tari Raatz, whose 9-year-old son Patrick has autism, experienced private-school discrimination firsthand upon trying to explore her son’s educational options in Madison. “The private school said ‘No thank you,’ even when my husband and I offered to pay for a full time aide and that we would finance all of his needs for occupational therapy, speech/language, and all other needs. Special needs vouchers would only reflect that discrimination. We should not even be considering a new voucher program when the current vouchers are so flawed!”

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers statewide continue to advocate that the special needs voucher proposal be removed from Wisconsin’s budget. Wisconsin must not commit another dime to the expansion or creation of discriminatory voucher programs.

SSNV Press Release – Fox Valley Listening Session

The following is the Stop Special Needs Vouchers press release for our April 18 Fox Valley listening session.


For Immediate Release:
April 22, 2013

Parents Against Special Needs Vouchers Applaud Bi-Partisan Pledge to “Lead the Fight”

Neenah, WI– Parents of students with disabilities praised comments from State Senator Michael Ellis (R -Neenah) and Representative Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton), promising to fight to remove the deeply-flawed special needs voucher proposal from the Wisconsin state budget. Citing significant opposition by his fellow Republicans, Sen. Ellis predicted the legislature would be in for a long budget battle if they did not remove the controversial proposal from the budget. Sen. Ellis and Rep. Bernard Schaber spoke on Thursday night at a community conversation in Neenah, hosted by Stop Special Needs Vouchers, where both legislators and parent speakers expressed their opposition to the voucher proposal.

Senator Ellis assured the gathering that he and other Senators in his caucus would do all they can to take the special needs vouchers out of the budget in the Joint Finance Committee. He also pledged, invoking his position as Senate president, “I will help lead the fight to remove it.” Senator Ellis cited grave concerns about how funding for voucher would negatively affect public schools and ultimately taxpayers. Representative Bernard Schaber said she would not vote for a budget that included special needs vouchers.

Mary Swifka, whose freshman son Noah is thriving with the support he receives in the New London school district, praised the legislators’ statements. “We appreciate Senator Ellis and Representative Bernard Schaber coming together across partisan lines to speak out against the special needs vouchers. Disability advocacy organizations all across Wisconsin agree – the vouchers are a bad choice for our students and our state, and must be removed from the state budget.” Swifka was among those who spoke at the event in Neenah.

Katie Schierl, whose son Jim has cerebral palsy and completed his public education in the Neenah school district last June, also spoke against the vouchers on Thursday. Schierl explained, “Students who take the special needs vouchers would lose their rights to transition services and all the other legal protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Our tax money should not be going to private schools that aren’t required to follow the IDEA, including the transition programs that were so vital for helping Jim prepare for life after high school.”

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers statewide continue to advocate that the special needs voucher proposal be removed from Wisconsin’s budget, so that the legislation can have a separate public hearing in an education committee where its shortcomings can be fully exposed.

Video of the April 18 Community Conversation in Neenah is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NONFRL056U8

April 11 Listening Session Testimony – Gary Myrah

The following is Gary Myrah’s testimony from our April 11 Listening Session in Milwaukee.
Mr. Myrah is a parent and the executive director for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services.


Good evening, I am Gary Myrah, a parent and the executive director for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS). I have been a director of special services since 1978.

The issue of private school special education vouchers/scholarships is not a partisan issue. It is an issue that has been created at a national level and brought into states via a conservative group of people. Laws related to providing services to children with disabilities have been supported by both parties.

Before 1975, too many children were denied access to education and opportunities to learn. Providing appropriate education to youngsters from diverse cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds was especially challenging. Further, most families were not afforded the opportunity to be involved in planning or placement decisions regarding their children, and resources were not available to enable children with significant disabilities to live at home and receive an education at neighborhood schools in their community.

When it was passed in 1975, P.L. 94-142 (now IDEA) guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability. This law had a dramatic, positive impact on millions of children with disabilities in every state and each local community across the country.

For the past 38 years children with disabilities and their parents have had guaranteed rights. Four Purposes of P.L. 94-142:

  1. “to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them … a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
  2. to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected
  3. to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  4. to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities”

(Source: Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975) The current proposed legislation jeopardizes these four purposes. Private school vouchers will not:

  • assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected
  • assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  • assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities

Chapter 89 (Now Chapter 115) of Wisconsin laws and P.L. 94-142 (now IDEA) are the results of the power of parents banding together to seek a better life for their child(ren). The current proposed option for private school special education vouchers/scholarships DID NOT START WITH PARENTS.

This is an effort that is currently sweeping the nation and is designed by corporate leaders that believe we must privatize public education. Currently similar legislation has been proposed in multiple states, all appear to follow the same template. This legislation will:

  • reduce the amount of money received by public schools to serve children with disabilities
  • vaporize a parents rights as they cross the threshold of a private school
  • ignore the requirement for highly qualified teachers to serve children with disabilities
  • lead to segregated classrooms where children will model each other behaviors

How do we prevent this from happening – fire up PARENT POWER.

The collective force of parents focused on a purpose is remarkable. This is how the original laws were written; it will be critical in maintaining these laws. Every parent needs to pick up a pen or pencil and write THEIR story and why it is important not to jeopardize the rights of children with disabilities. It is equally effective to send an electronic version or even call and leave a message.

The letters that are written should not be form letters or from a template. The letters need to tell a personalized story of how public education has helped a child succeed.

Another method that should be considered is to involve students. They are able to utilize social media to create an avalanche of communication to any and all legislators. There are countless number of young people that have a passion to ensure the humane treatment of their friends, they need to have a voice as well.

Greendale JFC Budget Hearing – Nissan Bar-Lev’s Testimony

The following is a testimony given at the Joint Finance Committee hearing in Greendale on April 4, 2013. Nissan Bar-Lev is the Special Education Director for CESA-7, located in northeast Wisconsin.


My name is Nissan Bar-Lev, and I am the Special Education Director for CESA 7, a consortium of 38 school districts in Northeast Wisconsin, headquartered in Green Bay.

I oppose the “Special Education Voucher,“ also known as the “Special Education Scholarship.” I oppose it because it is bad legislation. It is bad for kids, bad for their parents and bad for their school districts.

 It is bad for kids, because this legislation provides absolutely no assurances that special education services, recommended by seasoned professionals and written into the child’s Individual Educational Program (IEP), will be implemented in private schools.

It is bad for parents, because this legislation provides absolutely no assurances that federal and state procedural safeguards and parental rights, secured by parent organizations and disability-related organizations since 1975, will be implemented in private schools.

 It is bad for schools, because this legislation forces school districts to fail their fiscal/federal “Maintenance of Effort” calculation, resulting in huge financial penalties.

This legislation is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist. There are about 125,000 students with disabilities in Wisconsin. At most, there are between 100 to 200 serious disputes between parents and schools per year. However, we already have the mechanism in place to resolve such special education disputes via the Wisconsin Special Education Mediation System (WSEMS, 85% agreement rate), IEP Facilitation, or IDEA Complaints. All these options are at no cost to parents or schools, not to mention the availability of the Open Enrollment option.

There is no need for this legislation. There is no need for Special Education Scholarships in Wisconsin.

Community Conversation – April 18

Calling Fox Valley area advocates!

Stop Special Needs Vouchers is hosting a Community Conversation in Neenah on April 18. Here are the details: If you’re concerned about the future of all Wisconsin children, now is the time toget the facts about special needs vouchers and the impact they will have on all students, including those with disabilities. Attend a Fox Valley Community Conversation hosted by Stop Special Needs Vouchers!

When: THURSDAY, APRIL 18 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Neenah High School; 1275 Tullar Road, Neenah (Room 128 – Enter Door 6)
Who: Families, community members, educators, and professionals who are interested in learning how Special Needs Vouchers may impact all students.
What: See the facts about the impact Special Needs Vouchers will have on education funding.

Hear from Fox Valley parents as they share their concerns and personal stories about the WI budget proposal to expand Special Needs Vouchers/Scholarships.

Learn from a parent-moderated panel of Fox Valley Legislators as they discuss their positions on Special Needs Vouchers:
– Senator Mike Ellis-Neenah (CONFIRMED)
– Representative Penny Bernard Schaber-Appleton (CONFIRMED)
– Representative Dean Kaufert-Neenah (Invited)

*** If you would like a PDF version of this announcement to print out or email to your network, please follow the link here. If you would like to get up-the-minute updates about the event, or interact with the local organizers, please check out the Facebook event page.

Superintendent Election – April 2

Be sure to VOTE on Tuesday April 2!

There are two candidates for statewide superintendent of schools for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction: current superintendent Tony Evers, and Assembly Representative Don Pridemore.  Links to their statements in the Capital Times are below.

Tony Evers
Link to Capital Times article here.
“I am leading the charge against the radical expansion of private school vouchers.”

Rep. Don Pridemore
Link to Capital Times article here.
“We must not stand in the way of voucher expansion.”

In addition, the candidates attended a forum on March 1, 2013 to discuss their policies and priorities for special education in Wisconsin. This was a non-partisan forum, and Disability Rights Wisconsin compiled a guide to the forum. Each candidate was asked the same set of questions about special education, covering a variety of topics from funding to vouchers to seclusion and restraint. You can read the guide here.

Please remember to vote on Tuesday, April 2!

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Parent Quotes

“It is not ‘choice’ when one is forced to give up his or her legal protections.” — Kevin, father from Cudahy

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