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.
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.