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Yearly Archives:

2014

Families of Students with Disabilities Applaud Request for Federal Review of Voucher Program

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 22, 2014

Families of Students with Disabilities Applaud
Request for Federal Review of Voucher Program

Madison, WI – Wisconsin families of students with special needs are pleased to support Rep. Mark Pocan in his request for a federal review of Milwaukee’s voucher-school program, with an emphasis on examining disability issues. Given the recently-threatened return of the failed special needs vouchers proposal, coupled with the numerous allegations of disability-related discrimination in the Milwaukee voucher program, a thorough examination is long overdue.

“I am encouraged to see the prospect of getting some solid information about students with special needs in the Milwaukee voucher program,” said Anna Moffit, Madison parent of three children with disabilities. “The disability-discrimination complaints are real, and Rep. Pocan’s questions are more than reasonable. How can voucher expansion even be on the table, particularly the special needs vouchers, when such basic accountability and information is still lacking?”

Kevin Fech, parent from Cudahy, agrees that a federal response is clearly warranted. “One of my biggest concerns about the voucher program is the federal rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that my son has in the public schools, but that the voucher schools are free to ignore,” he said. “The voucher schools want us to trust that they’ll do right by our most vulnerable kids, but don’t even want to tell the public how many students with disabilities they’re enrolling! To even consider a special needs voucher program when this level of obstruction is going on is not only dangerously wrong – it’s ridiculous.”

A federal review is particularly welcome in context of 2014’s proposed special needs voucher bill at federal level, which expired without action but will surely return despite families’ opposition. In an astonishing disregard for the federal rights of students with disabilities, the so-called Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act would amend the IDEA to allow federal IDEA funds to flow into private voucher schools, while explicitly exempting those schools from abiding by the IDEA itself!

Wisconsin must ensure that our students with disabilities are not cheated of their civil rights when educated with our tax dollars. The review proposed by Rep. Pocan is a crucial step in that direction, and must not be derailed by the predictable high-volume response from the deep-pocketed voucher lobby.

Meanwhile, the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers are determined to continue to let our legislators and our communities know: special needs vouchers would be a harmful experiment with our most vulnerable students. Every special needs voucher proposal, every time, has been wrong for our students and wrong for Wisconsin.


For more background on concerns about special needs vouchers in Wisconsin, see:
http://tinyurl.com/coqrrsn
For more information on Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a parent-led statewide grassroots group, see:
Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers
Web site — http://www.stopspecialneedsvouchers.org

This release may also be found at the Wheeler Report:
http://thewheelerreport.com/wheeler_docs/files/1222ssnv.pdf

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A Letter to Governor Walker

A powerful and passionate letter to  Governor Walker from Sheila Plotkin of McFarland.

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Dear Governor Walker,

Rep. John Jagler wants to revive his failed special needs vouchers proposal. He needs your support. I am writing to urge you not to give it.

I am a retired teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. For 20 of my 28 years in the Milwaukee Public Schools, I served as the program’s diagnostic teacher. I assessed hundreds of kids, some of them with multiple special needs. I taught in-service classes to both special needs and regular education teachers. My experience showed me that even the most dedicated, eager-to-learn teachers needed a great deal of time and exposure to gain an understanding of how to teach special needs kids. It can be a complicated and difficult task to devise the individualized instruction necessary to give them what they need. But, they deserve nothing less.

Less is what they’ll get in unaccountable education-for-profit schools. They will not be protected by IDEA. They will not be assured of trained staff or therapists. They can be rejected when it becomes clear they “don’t fit”. The for-profit school administration will keep the taxpayer’s money. Meanwhile, their public school has been deprived of essential, public funds. With fewer resources, that school must continue to provide special needs students with an appropriate education as the law requires.

Given that there is no research to prove that regular education students do better in education-for-profit settings, it is irresponsible at best, criminal at worst, to lure special needs students into this educational dead end.

You claim to fight for Wisconsin’s hard-working taxpayers. We can barely afford our public school system now. We cannot support a for-profit system too.

Governor, our special needs children are relying on your good will and common sense. You have a responsibility to protect them from becoming cash cows milked by profiteers. You owe it to them and to their parents to set aside your ideology, to reject the demands of your deep-pocketed donors, and to stand up for these youngsters’ rights. Their future is in your hands.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Sheila Plotkin
McFarland, WI

Families Promise to Keep Speaking Out: Special Needs Vouchers are Still Bad News

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 21, 2014

Families Promise to Keep Speaking Out:
Special Needs Vouchers are Still Bad News


Madison, WI – In the wake of recent headlines that “promise” the return of the failed special needs vouchers proposals in Wisconsin, families of students with special needs have some promises of their own.

“I can promise you this: families like mine are still just as opposed to these voucher schemes as we were eight months ago,” says Terri Hart-Ellis of Whitefish Bay, mom to 11-year-old Addie who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. “Last winter we brought over a thousand signatures and stories from across Wisconsin to the legislature, pointing out how special needs vouchers would weaken our neighborhood schools and how voucher students lose their special education rights. Our families have spoken out time and again against these harmful proposals, and it’s time for the legislature to listen!”

Kelli Simpkins of Madison, whose 13-year-old son Mickey has epilepsy, promises to continue raising her voice as well. “We should be talking about strengthening special education funding in the public schools, and the proposals that are already on the table to make open enrollment more equitable by eliminating ‘undue financial burden’ denials for students with disabilities. Why in the world are we still re-hashing voucher proposals that would let fly-by-night schools set up in Wisconsin to take advantage of our children?”

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers are determined to continue to let our legislators and our communities know: special needs vouchers would be a dangerous experiment with our most vulnerable students. Every special needs voucher proposal, every time, has been wrong for our students and wrong for Wisconsin.


For more background on concerns about special needs vouchers in Wisconsin, see: http://tinyurl.com/coqrrsn
For more information on Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a parent-led statewide grassroots group, see:
Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers
Web site — http://www.stopspecialneedsvouchers.org

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Families of Students with Disabilities Applaud Special Education Funding, Open Enrollment Proposal

Families of Students with Disabilities Applaud Special Education Funding, Open Enrollment Proposal

Date: 10 November 2014

Madison, WI – The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have multiple reasons to cheer the budget proposal released today by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The proposal would strengthen our state’s investment in students with disabilities by increasing special education funding, and would also improve equity in Wisconsin’s open enrollment program. Stop Special Needs Vouchers appreciates the budget’s responsiveness to parent perspectives statewide. The resulting proposal bears out our contention that addressing open enrollment disparities for students with special needs can clearly be achieved without turning to harmful special needs vouchers.

The proposal brings crucial support for students with disabilities at a time when special education funding has been frozen for six years, yet costs have continued to rise. The DPI budget proposal would boost state funding for special education up to 30% of district costs by 2017, finally reversing the multi-decade decline in the percentage of state reimbursement for special education costs. The high cost fund, which supports districts to educate nearly 1,000 children with more significant challenges statewide, would increase from 45% to full reimbursement.

Meanwhile, the proposal addresses concerns of families of students with disabilities who wish to move their child to a neighboring school district, but have faced denials that were not present for students without disabilities. The proposal removes discriminatory barriers through re-structuring open enrollment funding for students with disabilities.

“This will be a powerful improvement in the open enrollment program for students with disabilities,” says Paula Buege, a parent from Middleton. “But it’s also critical to support our neighborhood schools where our students have special education rights and the doors are open to all, unlike private voucher schools. The proposed funding increases will be a big step forward.”

“We’ve argued all along that fixing open enrollment is the way to go, rather than draining our public schools through special needs voucher schemes,” said Pam DeLap, a parent from Oshkosh. “Families statewide have been speaking out time and again about how risky the vouchers would be for our students. It’s time to give up on the failed special needs voucher proposals, once and for all, and put our effort toward strengthening public education for all our children.”

For more information on Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a parent-led statewide grassroots group:
Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers
Website — http://www.stopspecialneedsvouchers.org/

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Candidate Positions on Special Needs Vouchers Now Available Online

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 4, 2014

Madison, WI – The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers today unveil an online compilation of Wisconsin candidate survey responses, past statements, and voting records on special needs vouchers, online at http://www.stopspecialneedsvouchers.org/candidates/.  After successfully opposing the harmful special needs voucher proposals in recent legislative sessions, parents of students with disabilities are eager to disseminate the candidates’ positions, as the primary election approaches.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers sent the following question to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and the state legislature: Do you support the creation of a statewide special needs voucher program in Wisconsin, as proposed in Wisconsin’s past two legislative sessions?  Why, or why not?

“It’s important to know what the candidates have said and done regarding special needs vouchers,” said steering committee member Terri Hart-Ellis of Whitefish Bay, mom to 10-year-old Addie who has Rubenstein-Taybi Syndrome.  “Senator Fitzgerald has announced that special needs vouchers are ‘teed up’ for next year, so these elections could make all the difference in our ability to defend the right of Wisconsin students to a free, appropriate public education.”

“We spoke out against the special needs vouchers last spring, and the legislature listened,” said steering committee member Kelli Simpkins of Madison, mom to 11-year-old Mickey who has epilepsy.  “The last thing Wisconsin needs is unaccountable schools like LifeSkills Academy popping up all over the state to take advantage of our students and our special-education tax dollars.  But now we need to inform ourselves on where the candidates stand, and then speak at the ballot box.”

Stop Special Needs Vouchers thanks the candidates who took the time to respond to our survey and make their positions known.  Early voting for the primary is currently underway, and Election Day is Tuesday August 12.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin 2014-08-04 press release (PDF)

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Candidate Survey Question Sent

Stop Special Needs Vouchers has sent the following survey question to all Wisconsin candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and state legislative seats:

“Do you support the creation of a statewide special needs voucher program in Wisconsin, as proposed in Wisconsin’s past two legislative sessions? Why, or why not?”

While we won’t be endorsing candidates, we will be publicizing the answers received (due August 1) as well as past voting/co-sponsorship records and public statements on special needs vouchers.

Taxpayers Deserve to See the Voucher School Data, Say Families of Students with Disabilities

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 19, 2014

Madison, WI – Families of students with disabilities from across the state are dismayed at the hostile reaction to the reasonable request that Wisconsin’s private taxpayer-supported voucher schools should provide basic data on the disability status of their voucher students. The data request from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) comes fourteen months after the U.S. Department of Justice responded to a complaint from Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin ACLU, on behalf of families of students with disabilities who have experienced discrimination in Milwaukee’s private voucher schools.

“It all comes down to fairness and accountability,” says Joanne Juhnke, Madison parent of a student on the autism spectrum and chair of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee. “Wisconsin is sending our tax dollars and some of our most vulnerable children into private voucher schools, and in return we’ve encountered a black hole of data resistance. The taxpayers and families of Wisconsin deserve to know the full extent to which private voucher schools may be discriminating against students with disabilities. This utter lack of transparency is yet another reason why we should not even be considering special needs vouchers in the state of Wisconsin.”

Lennise Vickers of Milwaukee isn’t surprised that some voucher schools would prefer not to publicize their disability data, given her family’s experience of “smoke and mirrors” recruiting practices when she briefly enrolled her daughter, 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 should have to follow all the rules that the public schools do, including reporting their numbers.”

The antagonism to disability data reporting takes on additional overtones in context of the so-called Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, recently introduced at the federal level. In an astonishing disregard for the federal rights of students with disabilities, the CHOICE Act would amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to allow federal IDEA funds to flow into private voucher schools, while explicitly exempting those schools from abiding by the IDEA itself. The CHOICE Act also includes a truncated “non-discrimination” statement that would leave the door wide open for private voucher schools to openly discriminate on the basis of disability, actually codifying such discrimination-permission into the IDEA itself.

Wisconsin must ensure that our students with disabilities are not cheated of their civil rights when educated in private voucher schools. Proposed voucher expansion, including special needs vouchers, is more problematic than ever in the presence of such resistance to accountability as is currently being demonstrated.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers calls on Wisconsin’s private voucher schools to provide the requested data by the June 30 deadline, and urges our federal Congressional delegation to oppose the CHOICE Act (S.1909/H.R.4773).

For more information on Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a parent-led statewide grassroots group, see our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers

 This press release is also posted at The Wheeler Report for June 19, 2014.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin Opposes Federal Special Needs Voucher Funding

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin, a statewide grassroots group of families, is firmly opposed to S.1909/H.R.4773, the so-called Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, as introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN).

Because of the activism of families before us, our children attend school together with their neighborhood peers. Across the country, students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education, with legally enforceable protections, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The rights and protections of the IDEA do not apply, however, in private voucher schools. Private schools are not required to accept any given student with a disability, and families have no recourse if the private school decides that a student is no longer welcome. Private voucher schools need not have therapists or special educators on staff, nor are such schools required to provide specific services or supports such as therapies or assistive technologies. Meanwhile, vouchers drain funds from the neighborhood schools where IDEA does apply, that are required to educate all students regardless of disabilities. In short, special needs vouchers are risky for those who accept them and forfeit their IDEA rights, and harmful for students with more challenging disabilities who are left concentrated in the public schools with less systemwide funding.

While the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have successfully advocated against special needs voucher proposals in Wisconsin, the CHOICE Act would provide start-up grants for such detrimental programs to be developed in additional states. Furthermore, the Act would amend the IDEA itself to allow federal IDEA funding to be spent in existing voucher or tax credit programs for students with disabilities, while de-coupling that funding from all the requirements of the IDEA.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers objects strongly to the CHOICE Act’s proposal to spend federal dollars on propagating harmful voucher programs, especially in light of the chronic underfunding of the IDEA. The additional provision of the CHOICE Act to exempt a portion of those scarce IDEA funds from the IDEA itself, and spend those dollars in unaccountable private schools, is completely unacceptable and displays an intense level of disregard for the struggles of the families who brought the IDEA into being in the first place, and for the students that the IDEA now serves and protects.

We urge our Senators and Representatives to join with us in opposing S.1909/H.R.4773. Public funding for students with disabilities belongs in public schools, where the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remains in force.

via The Wheeler Report: Stop Special Needs Vouchers Opposes Federal Special Needs Voucher Funding

Special Education Act Would Leave Children More Vulnerable

by Gov. William Winter, Governor of Mississippi 1980-1984

The Mississippi House of Representatives took a bold step on Wednesday to protect Mississippi’s most vulnerable children by defeating The Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act. The courageous lawmakers who voted against this act did so knowing full well that their protection of vulnerable children would likely be misrepresented by those who do not understand, or do not acknowledge, the full ramifications of this bill.

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requiring that public schools identify and provide the necessary accommodations for all children with special needs to be able to fulfill their academic potential. In the decades since, public schools have made vast improvements to their special education programs, and they have become a lifeline to the families and children who rely on them. School are required by law to provide the services called for in a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

As school districts’ budgets have been decimated by consistent underfunding by our State Legislature, it has become increasingly difficult for them to provide every accommodation requested by every parent of a child with special needs. Understandably, those parents are angry. Public schools are provided between $1,200 and $2,000 per child to provide all accommodations needed, though the actual cost of the services is many times the amount, often $50,000 or more per child. Districts make up the balance with funds they receive through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The solution would be for the Legislature to provide the funding required for schools to pay for the services. Instead, legislators proposed a bill that required parents of students with special needs to withdraw their children from public schools and relinquish their rights to federal protection in order to receive a $6,000 voucher to pay for private school tuition, therapy, or a host of other options.

Too many have fought for too long to ensure this legal protection for parents to be asked to relinquish the rights of their children to have their special needs met. Our obligation is to serve them. We must, as a people, provide their schools the means to do so.

The private schools proposed to be funded through vouchers were under no obligation to serve these children. They were explicitly guarded from oversight and were permitted to deny enrollment to children based upon ability or the school’s admissions policies. The bill even required that the private schools receiving taxpayer funding would not have their identities revealed.

By and large, the services required by children with special needs are not offered in private schools. They do not have teachers trained in special education or professional therapists who can meet their needs. Special schools that do offer such services charge tuition well in excel of $6,000, eliminating those as viable options for the overwhelming majority of Mississippi families.

The bill did not permit voucher-holders to home-school their children, insisting that they be enrolled in a school that would likely command the entire amount of the voucher, perhaps more, for tuition, leaving nothing for therapy or accommodations.

The most critical challenge confronting our state is to meet the educational needs of every child, regardless of ability, affluence, race, or creed. To believe that we can accomplish that by transferring state funding from public to private schools that are under no obligation to meet the needs of the children in their care is pure folly.

While it may be tempting to grasp the easy fix for a few, the tenets of a moral society demand that we do more.

Under-funding special education services for all in public schools, and proposing to fund a few, private schools that offer no services, puts children with special needs at serious risk of harm. The better solution is to provide the necessary funding to ensure an education worthy of all children who have set their sights on the stars.

William F. Winter is the former Democratic Governor of Mississippi (1980-1984)
Reprinted with permission from Governor Winter.  The original appeared on April 18 in the DeSoto Times Tribune.

When Schools Choose, Students with Disabilities Lose

First published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online, 1/23/2014

In the window of the now-defunct LifeSkills Academy on N. 38th St. in Milwaukee, there hangs a forlorn sign advertising School Choice Week, slated for Jan. 26 to Feb. 1. The current administration in Madison has declared Wisconsin School Choice Week every year since 2011, and this year likely will be no different.

School Choice Week poster in window of defunct LifeSkills Academy building

LifeSkills Academy, as a promoter of “school choice,” made some jaw-dropping choices. One such choice was to close without warning in the middle of the night in December, disrupting the education of 66 students as their families scrambled to find alternatives, while keeping the full $200,000 it had received in taxpayer funds for a semester left unfinished. Another was to open a new LifeSkills Academy in Florida as a McKay Special Needs “scholarship” school, qualifying for that state’s special needs vouchers by declaring sudden expertise in various disabilities.

As parents of public school students with significant developmental disabilities, we find this sequence of school choices to be more chilling than a Wisconsin winter. The story of LifeSkills Academy also casts a revealing light on a revamped special needs voucher bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature on Tuesday, previous iterations of which have been blocked through determined opposition from families and disability organizations statewide.

Because of the activism of parents before us, our children attend school with their neighborhood peers. Across the country, students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education, with legally enforceable protections, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Unfortunately, the rights and protections of the IDEA do not apply in private voucher schools such as LifeSkills Academy, and special needs vouchers would not change that. Private voucher schools are not required to have therapists or special educators on staff, and Wisconsin’s existing voucher program has a dismal track record of expelling or “counseling out” students with disabilities. The revamped special needs voucher bill puts no limit on the number of vouchers that could be granted statewide, reducing funding available for every school district in the state. While the recent statewide voucher expansion specified that schools must be in existence for at least two years before qualifying to take vouchers, the new special needs voucher bill makes no such provision, leaving the doors wide open for fly-by-night schools to choose Wisconsin solely to take advantage of the vouchers — and of some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable students.

The special needs voucher threat to the students of Wisconsin is why we are part of Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a statewide parent-led grass-roots group that advocates in favor of inclusive public education and in opposition to voucher schemes funded and supported in large part by out-of-state interests. We are deeply opposed to this latest attempt to pull public money out of public schools and into private schools where students with disabilities surrender their rights at the door, if indeed the door is not slammed in their faces.

The private schools are the entities that would be given the real choice. And when private schools get to choose, students with significant disabilities lose. Our public school students stand to lose funding for critical shared resources, at a time when public education funding already has been deeply slashed. Students with disabilities deserve a quality education.

We cannot let School Choice Week declarations and harmful special needs voucher legislation distract us from this goal. Instead, we should be supporting and strengthening Wisconsin’s public schools. Together we can work to restore public school funding, perhaps with the recently reported state surplus, rather than drain funding via vouchers. We also propose to improve open enrollment, so students with disabilities have the same opportunity as their nondisabled peers to choose between public school districts, where their rights are protected and there are assurances of quality.

Together we call on the Legislature to work with us on these issues and to reject special needs vouchers outright in 2014.

Submitted by Pamela DeLap of Oshkosh, Kevin Fech of Cudahy, Nancy Gapinski of Glendale, Terri Hart-Ellis of Whitefish Bay, Tammie Hefty of Mount Horeb and Joanne Juhnke of Madison. 

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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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