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February 2013

Where Do We Go From Here?

Where do we go from here now that we know that Special Needs Vouchers are a part of the governor’s budget proposal?

There is still time to take action. The budget is not set in stone, and the legislature has an opportunity to make changes.

Please take time to contact your state representative and state senator. Email, call, or even schedule a legislative visit!

The message remains the same: special needs vouchers do not belong in the budget. Such a huge policy change needs a hearing in a standing education committee so the public can voice its opinion.

You can find contact information for your state legislators here. Check out our Take Action page for a sample email.

And please head over to the blog of one of our advocates to read his take on special needs vouchers. From his post:
“For every success story of a voucher school there is a failed story of a voucher school.  For every student that has thrived in the voucher school, there is another story where a voucher school failed a student.  

Is it really a “choice” when you are forced to give up your rights? Are families even told that they would be giving up these rights?”

SSNV Press Conference Recap

Yesterday’s press conference was a success! A huge thank you goes out to advocates across Wisconsin! It was truly amazing to see families gathered together to spread the Stop Special Needs Vouchers message.

We know that many families were not able to make it yesterday. Please know we appreciate your support and the work you are doing!

Our speakers shared public school success stories from elementary school to college. One by one they spoke from the heart and asked the governor to reconsider including special needs vouchers in the 2013-2015 budget proposal.

Afterward, a small delegation walked a letter from Stop Special Needs Vouchers to the governor’s office.

If you would like to watch video of the press conference, full coverage can be found here at WisconsinEye. Check out our Voucher Information Links page to read press coverage of this event.

Full text of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers letter to the governor:

Dear Governor Walker:

We are writing today as the members of Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a statewide parent-run organization committed to promoting quality public school choices for all students and preventing harmful special needs vouchers.

With families across the state of Wisconsin, we believe in the promise of quality public education for all students, both with and without disabilities. Through the education of Wisconsin’s children in our strong public schools, the people of this state are investing in the future. We believe the special needs voucher proposals which failed to pass in the 2012 legislative session would diminish that promise. These vouchers threaten both students who would use the vouchers to attend private schools and those students who remain in public schools.

We were dismayed to hear the news yesterday that a special needs voucher proposal is to be included in the 2013/2015 state budget proposal, and we respectfully request that you reconsider.

Families who use special needs vouchers forfeit their parent and student rights and protections guaranteed in public schools by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Should a voucher school fail to provide an adequate education with appropriate supports, the family has no legal recourse to obtain necessary services and supports. Their choice is then limited: remain at the private school that does not support their child, or return to their local public school that receives no additional funds for that child.

While public schools are required to accept all students, regardless of the severity of any disability, voucher schools would have no obligation to accept any given student. Special needs vouchers would go to students with milder disabilities that are more easily accommodated, leaving students with moderate and severe disabilities in neighborhood schools drained of funding for shared resources, such as therapists and special education teachers.

Special needs voucher programs in other states have experienced fraud, as well as increased segregation of students with disabilities. We are also concerned that limited requirements on staff credentials and programming would open the state to “double-dipping” by Medicaid providers.

Special needs vouchers are not guaranteed to cover the entire tuition at a private school. They would be more accessible to wealthy families than to families of lesser means. There is no family income cap for using the voucher; they would be distributed regardless of financial need.

Furthermore, no established statewide disability group in Wisconsin has asked for special needs vouchers, and none were consulted about any voucher legislation to be introduced in 2013.

Governor Walker, we ask that you remove special needs vouchers from your state budget proposal. Such a wide-reaching policy change affecting some of our most vulnerable students deserves a statewide public debate and a full public hearing in a standing education committee.

We thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to expressing our concerns with you in person.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Press Release

For Immediate Release: February 18, 2013


When: February 18, 2:30 PM
Where: State Capitol, Room 330 SW; Madison, WI
Who: Parents of Children with Disabilities and Students from throughout Wisconsin (Other Quality Education Advocates are also welcome to attend)

Madison, WI – Parents from across Wisconsin traveled to Madison today with their children with disabilities to tell Governor Walker a proposal in his budget is very wrong for their kids and to ask him to remove it immediately. The Governor announced yesterday that he will fund a special needs voucher program aimed at students with disabilities. Parents say the Governor was pressured by out-of-state organizations to include this harmful program without hearing from Wisconsin families about negative consequences. They are asking the Governor to remove the provision and to instead allow for balanced public debate on the issue within a legislative education committee.

Joanne Juhnke of Madison, mother to 8-year-old Miriam who has complex disabilities, says she worked with other parents to start the statewide grassroots group Stop Special Needs Vouchers due to significant concerns with previous voucher proposals that failed to pass the legislature last session. “The vouchers may sound very appealing on the surface, but the promises are false and the vouchers would be risky for the students who took them,” says Juhnke. “Also, I am worried about what happens to those students with disabilities who remain in their public schools after funding is drained to support a voucher system that can really only serve certain children.”

Katie Austin Schierl from Neenah, mother to Jim (age 21) says her son, who has multiple disabilities, received transition services and other special education guarantees in his public school. “Parents lose essential rights to a quality education when they take a voucher,” says Katie. “We should not be spending precious public tax dollars on an education that does not guarantee qualified staff, necessary therapies and a true IEP (Individualized Education Program) which must be implemented as written with parents at the table.”

Parents and people with disabilities from as far away as Dunn, Outagamie, Kenosha, Eau Claire and Milwaukee Counties were either at the event or represented by their letters and stories. Parents have a range of concerns about a voucher proposal, including reports of rampant fraud in other state special needs voucher/scholarship programs. Parents say they question why legislators and the governor would want to use tax dollars for a program similar to Florida’s in which parents had been duped by storefront schools and fancy brochures. In some cases, students left schools without earning necessary credits and even suffered abuse. Parents also are concerned about the potential for double-dipping by predatory providers in Wisconsin who might see lucrative opportunities to combine vouchers with Wisconsin’s Medicaid programming for children with disabilities.
Stop Special Needs Vouchers is comprised of Wisconsin families committed to promoting quality public-school choices for all students and stopping harmful special needs vouchers.

“For me, I am concerned about my small local school district which has less than 1000 students,” says Tracy Hedman of Glendale. The mom to 9-year-old Cyril says she has recently attended school board meetings where hundreds of thousands of dollars in programming needed to be cut. “Our school is our community. It would be devastating for my district to lose just a few students and that funding.”

After sharing their stories parents delivered a resolution to Governor Walker, asking him to remove special needs voucher policy from his budget.

“It should be clear today, after hearing from parents around the state who have concerns, that this is policy that should not be fast-tracked in the state budget,” says Juhnke. “This is the sort of significant education policy change that needs public hearings in a standing education committee in the legislature. Parents and education experts must debate this thoroughly before any decisions are made.”

The parents also noted that no statewide disability organization has endorsed a special needs scholarship proposal. “At the very least, the designers of this proposal should be asking the organizations and parent advocates who do special education trainings throughout the state what they think,” says Paula Buege, parent of two children with special needs and parent peer specialist who attends IEP meetings with families throughout Wisconsin to help them design a quality education program. “No one knows better than these organizations and parents who have literally sat through thousands of IEP meetings, what the quality of special education is like in Wisconsin and how it can be improved.”

State and federal special education laws give children with disabilities and their parents important rights, which would not have been guaranteed for voucher students in last year’s proposed special needs voucher legislation. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives families of special education children the right to:
  • have their child assessed to determine special education eligibility and needs
  • participate in an annual “individualized education program” (IEP) meeting and develop a written IEP plan with representatives of the local school district, 
  • specialized transition programming and services aimed at meeting postsecondary outcomes, and 
  • resolve disputes with the school district through an impartial administrative and legal process.
Special education law requires that a child with a disability receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). An IEP is a legal document listing, among other things, the special educational services that the child will receive, provided by staff with certain defined credentials and training.

Following the 2:30 press event parents planned to visit the Governor’s office to make a final plea for special needs vouchers to be removed from the state budget.

For more background on concerns about special needs vouchers in Wisconsin, see:
For more information on the parent group Stop Special Needs Vouchers, see:
Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers
Blog — http://stopspecialneedsvouchers.blogspot.com


Governor Releases Plans for Education – NEW Call to Action

Governor Walker gave an interview with the Associated Press in which he outlines his plans for education reform and funding in Wisconsin.

Among his proposals for the 2013-2015 biennial budget is a measure to allot $21 million in grants for students receiving special education services.

From the article:
A proposal for those special needs vouchers passed the Assembly last session, despite broad opposition from the state Department of Public Instruction, disabilities rights groups, and the state school boards association. It did not pass the Senate.

You can find the full article here at the Wisconsin State Journal.

With this announcement, our call to action has changed. At this time, we need to ask the governor to remove special needs vouchers from the budget. We have updated our Take Action page to reflect this new call to action.

Please join us tomorrow, February 18, at the capital for a press conference to deliver our Stop Special Need Vouchers message. Details can be found in this blog post.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers at the Capitol in Madison, Monday 2/18, 2:30pm

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin

Stop Special Needs Vouchers
Joanne Juhnke; joannethatsme@yahoo.com
Melissa Stoltz; magstoltz@hotmail.com



When:  February 18, 2:30 PM
Where:  State Capitol, Room 330 SW; Madison, WI
Who:  Parents of Children with Disabilities and Students from throughout Wisconsin (Other Quality Education Advocates are also welcome to attend.)

Parents and children with disabilities from across Wisconsin will gather in the Capitol on Monday, February 18 to tell Governor Scott Walker to keep special needs vouchers for students with disabilities OUT of his budget proposal.

The Governor will deliver his budget address on February 20.  Many believe he is being pressured by out-of-state lobbyists to include a special needs scholarship proposal, which could be harmful to students with disabilities and local school districts. Specifically, families are concerned that voucher funding mechanisms would harm their children in the public schools by draining monies from their local districts.  In addition, parents who use the vouchers would lose essential rights in private schools where basic safety protections are not in place and quality of education is not guaranteed.

At the family-organized February 18 Capitol event, parents from around Wisconsin will share their stories, introduce their children with disabilities and discuss their concerns about placing a special needs voucher proposal in the budget. Following the press event, parents and children with disabilities will deliver a message directly to the Governor’s office.

For more background on concerns about special needs vouchers in Wisconsin, see: http://tinyurl.com/Vouchers2013

For more information on the parent group Stop Special Needs Vouchers, see:
Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers
Blog — http://stopspecialneedsvouchers.blogspot.com

Stop Special Needs Vouchers is comprised of Wisconsin families committed to promoting quality public-school choices for all students and stopping harmful special needs vouchers.

Call to Action

National lobbying groups have been busy in Wisconsin working to have Governor Walker add Special Needs Vouchers to the 2013-2015 state budget.

This kind of sweeping policy change does not belong buried in a state budget. Families, educational experts, and citizens deserve the opportunity to weigh in on such a large-scale change to the way our state funds education and approaches supporting students with disabilities. If Special Needs Vouchers are included in the state budget, there will not be time for community input.

It’s time to take action!

Please contact the governor’s office at: govgeneral@wisconsin.gov

Check out our Take Action page for a sample email, or use DAWN’s email generator found here.

The governor’s budget will be released on February 20 – the time to email is now!

My Opposition to Special Education Vouchers

My Opposition to Special Education Vouchers
by Nissan Bar-Lev

Nissan Bar-Lev is the Director of Special Education for Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 7.

The Wisconsin Legislature is considering “Special Education Voucher” legislation.  If enacted, the Wisconsin Legislature will deprive students with disabilities and their families of their rights, procedural safeguards and protections established over the past 40 years by state and federal laws.

The provision of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities has been the heart and soul of state (Wisconsin Chapter 115 since 1973) and federal [Public Law 94-142 & Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)] laws since 1975.

This historic FAPE legislation guarantees that

(1) Students with disabilities receive services by appropriately licensed staff;

(2) Appropriate Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) are implemented within specific timeframes through individualized instruction, showing educational benefits and progress toward IEP goals;

(3) Confidentiality, access to records and timely notices to parents are followed;

(4) A host of procedural safeguards to insure appropriate services are adhered to;

(5) Specific disciplinary procedures are followed;

(6) Parents who disagree with any of the above provisions have access to a host of IDEA procedures for complaints and appeals, including due process hearings; and

(7) most important, all of the above guarantees are at public expense, at no cost to parents of students with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the proposed “Special Education Voucher” legislation does not require private schools to follow the above FAPE guarantees, nor can FAPE be implemented in private schools.  Students with disabilities and their parents who accept a “Special Education Voucher” and enroll in a private school, will not be able to count on FAPE guarantees to insure appropriate services. In other words, parents would not have the support of federal IDEA laws to demand IEP revisions or re-evaluations, to demand licensed teachers, therapists or aides, to demand a meaningful transition plan to adult life, or to access any of the other FAPE guarantees that are available in public schools. 

This would be an especially sad day for me, a practitioner of special education. Back in 2005, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction convened a small group of stakeholders to realign Wisconsin Chapter 115 with the federal IDEA law. I represented the school administration perspective. Jointly, and with skillful representation from Parent Advocacy organizations, School Board Association and Teacher Unions, we established a realigned new Wisconsin Chapter 115, protecting the rights of special education students and their families while delivering high quality special education services in schools. This legislation, hailed by many as a national model of stakeholders¹ involvement (parents and school organizations working in tandem), was passed unanimously by both the Senate and Assembly and signed by the Governor into law on July 1, 2006.

Unfortunately, the “Wisconsin Special Education Voucher” legislation will negate Wisconsin and federal special education laws to rendering them non-relevant and meaningless.

Wisconsin Legislators, please reject the “Wisconsin Special Education Voucher” legislation! Special education with its FAPE protection can only be delivered in public schools.

This piece was originally published on 2/3/2013 to the mailing lists of WI FACETS and the Autism Society of Wisconsin.  Republished with permission from the author.

Elevator Speeches

One of our advocates recently had the opportunity to speak with a state senator and a state representative at a local listening session. She asked them to share their thoughts on special needs vouchers and in turn they asked her to give a brief description of the program since they were not familiar with the details.

This is when an “elevator speech” came in handy. She was nervous and a little shaky, but since she had an elevator speech prepared she knew she could share a few facts. She was able to quickly describe what the special needs voucher program looks like and outline a few of her concerns. Both legislators indicated they would further investigate the issue, and our advocate was able to speak with the senator’s staffer after the meeting to provide more details.

So, what’s an elevator speech?

It is a concise summary of an issue that is just long enough to share with someone in the time it takes to ride the elevator together – a situation in which you might find yourself someday! If not an elevator, it might be a listening session or during a conversation with a friend or family member. You never know when you might have an opportunity to share a little bit about special needs vouchers!

When preparing an elevator speech, pare down your list of details and potential concerns to the few you feel are most important and will make the biggest impact. An elevator speech is a brief outline and does not usually include all details – think of it as planting a seed, or starting a conversation.

Once you’ve narrowed down the things you would like to include in your speech, it may help to write out a short script and then practice. It may feel awkward to practice out loud, but it is definitely worth it. You never know when you will have a few seconds with someone with whom you want to share the stop special needs vouchers message!

While preparing your own elevator speech, check out our new Take Action tab here on the blog. We will keep that page up to date with specific action items as we learn more about specific legislation.

Parent Quotes

“Wisconsin’s families and disability organizations have opposed the special needs vouchers from the beginning.” — Terri from Whitefish Bay, mother to Addie

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