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January 2014

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. 

Operators of Failed WI Voucher School Move to Florida, Open Special Needs Voucher School

For parents of students with disabilities in Wisconsin, the Florida version of special needs vouchers has loomed large as a cautionary tale.  In June 2011, the Miami New Times reported “McKay Scholarship Program Sparks Cottage Industry of Fraud and Chaos.”  The article related appalling accounts of schools held in strip malls, with inexperienced teachers and no curriculum or materials.  Fraud runs rampant, with almost no oversight or accountability from the state.  The vouchers, concluded the reporter, were “like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash.”

Since forming as a group in November of 2012, the parents of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have worked tirelessly to prevent such vouchers from being inflicted on the state of Wisconsin.  Special needs vouchers would funnel tax dollars from our already-underfunded public schools into unaccountable private schools, where students lose their federal special-education rights and protections.  Public schools educate everyone, regardless of disability; private voucher schools are notorious for cherry-picking the students they deem “easier” to educate, while students with more intensive and expensive challenges remain in the public schools.

We have seen this dynamic underway already in the Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher program, where private schools are not accountable to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Many families have experiences of students with disabilities who were returned from voucher schools to the public schools, after the voucher schools had received tax money for the semester.  According to public testimony from Bob Peterson of Milwaukee this past October, “We know that between the ‘third Friday’ and second of January there is an exodus from certain voucher and charter schools… Last year between the ‘third Friday’ and the first of December, 448 students left the voucher and charter schools; 142 of them turned out to be special ed students.”

Now we have further troubling evidence connecting a failed voucher school in Wisconsin to the special needs voucher boondoggle in Florida.

Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the story on Janaury 14: Milwaukee voucher school LifeSkills Academy closes ‘in the dead of the night’.  LifeSkills Academy had 66 voucher-funded students when it closed down overnight; only one of those students was proficient in reading and math.  The students ended up at other schools, but, as the article reported, “The DPI is not able to recoup public money spent by voucher schools that do not finish the year.”

The depth of dysfunction at LifeSkills Academy was laid bare by a parent review on the GreatSchools.com site in 2013.  According to the parent:

This is among the worst schools I have ever seen. Poor administrative leadership and accountability, low morale, extreme unprofessionalism, the lack of organizational structure, scarce resources, low teacher creativity, loose student environment, and low faculty talent are just some of the reasons why this school is not only a scam but it perpetuates the issues our city is experiencing with juvenile delinquency, student illiteracy, and dismantling any hope that any attending student might have for being successful. I quickly corrected a mistake that I made for allowing my son to attend this “school” when I saw that he never had homework and his text book was photocopied, 3 grade levels below, and published in the late 1980′s. This school is run like a small family church and not like an academic institution.

In a follow-up article, the Journal Sentinel trailed the proprietors of the failed LifeSkills Academy: Leaders of closed Milwaukee voucher school are now in Florida.  According to the subsequent story, “Records show Taron and Rodney Monroe started a new private Christian school this year in Daytona Beach. While the school in Milwaukee was running on fumes, they were telling Florida friends they had experience getting government grants for religious schools.”  The new school was also named LifeSkills Academy.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers has learned that the new iteration of LifeSkills Academy in Florida did indeed succeed in qualifying as a voucher school, for Florida’s McKay special needs voucher program.  On a directory of McKay scholarship program private schools on the Florida Department of Education web site, LifeSkills Academy is listed as a McKay school in the Volusia school district, serving disability-types of Emotional/Behavioral Disability, Specific Learning Disability, Gifted, and Intellectual Disability.

The idea of such a school simply declaring themselves as expert in special education should send shivers down the spine of every parent of a student with disability-related educational needs.

The scandal of LifeSkills Academy voucher school, both in Wisconsin and Florida, must serve as a vivid warning for our state, as voucher expansion plans continue to surface in our state legislature.  The voucher experiment is riddled with failure and fraud.  We cannot allow special needs vouchers to multiply the damage in Wisconsin.

– Joanne Juhnke
Chair, Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee

Parent Quotes

“Special needs vouchers will take money away from public schools, money that can and should be used to support every child in that school building, money that can be used to benefit the entire school community.” — Jenny, mother from Milwaukee

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