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SSNV Testimony: U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

27 July 2015

To: The Honorable Ron Johnson (U.S. Senator, Wisconsin)
The Members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

From: The Members of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin Steering Committee

Re: “The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: A Pioneer for School Choice Programs Nationwide.”
U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs July 20 hearing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin is a statewide grassroots volunteer group, run by and for families of students with disabilities. We have been advocating since 2012 toward our shared vision for well-funded, inclusive public education for all.

“For all” is a particularly crucial educational element for students with disabilities. Public schools are the only type of schools in Wisconsin that, by law, cannot refuse to educate our children on the basis of disability. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which emerged through passionate advocacy on the part of a previous generation of parents like us, offers our children the right to be educated at their neighborhood public school, no matter how complex their disability might be. When our tax dollars fund public schools, that promise is afforded to all our children.

In Wisconsin’s private voucher schools, by contrast, families of taxpayer-funded students with disabilities forfeit the rights and protections of the IDEA, including the right to a legally-enforceable Individualized Education Plan and the right to have their disability taken into account in an expulsion hearing. Voucher schools need not have special educators or therapists on staff, nor are they currently required to abide by Wisconsin law regulating the harmful practices of seclusion and restraint which are used most heavily on students with special needs.

Even in context of the much narrower legal protections in private voucher schools, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the universal-acceptance provisions of Wisconsin’s voucher law, Wisconsin families of students with special needs have reported disturbing incidents of disability-related discrimination. These families’ experiences of being discouraged from attending voucher schools, or pushed out by failure to provide reasonable accommodations, led to the 2011 disability-discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin in 2011.

In fact, in 2012-13, nearly 25 percent of students who returned to the Milwaukee public schools from voucher schools — 109 of 420 students — were students with disabilities. Unfortunately the voucher schools have not been required to report apples-to-apples numbers that document how many students with disabilities are actually being served, so that crucial piece of transparency for families is lacking. However, it is clear that Milwaukee’s public schools are faced with ever-increasing challenges of educating the students with disabilities that the voucher schools cannot or will not educate. Overall the Milwaukee public schools now have a concentration of one-in-five students with a disability, with some schools as high as 30%.

In context of the important, ongoing Department of Justice investigation and the fact that families of students with disabilities are required to give up so much – rights, protections, and transparency – when they take a voucher, Stop Special Needs Vouchers continues to strongly object to the expansion of Wisconsin’s voucher programs. Special needs vouchers, which were repeatedly defeated in the regular legislative process in the wake of overwhelming concerns from families like ours and disability organizations across the state, are particularly troubling, now that they have been installed for the 2016/17 school year via a state budget amendment that afforded no opportunity for public hearing or testimony.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers appreciates the opportunity to at least provide written testimony regarding our perspective on the pitfalls of Wisconsin’s voucher programs for students with disabilities. We hope for a process that takes seriously the experiences of students with disabilities and their families, and that strives to uncover and end all disability discrimination in Wisconsin’s voucher programs. The people of Wisconsin deserve no less.

Press Release: Disability Slurs Have No Place in Public Discourse, Sen. Johnson

July 24, 2015

Madison, WI – Wisconsin families of students with disabilities are still picking their jaws up off the floor, after reading that Senator Ron Johnson used the following slur in reference to Milwaukee students in a radio interview on Monday: “those idiot inner-city kids.”

Once upon a time, the term “idiot” was a medical term of art for individuals with profound cognitive disabilities. However, it became an insulting pejorative and has long been abandoned by the medical community. Parents of students with disabilities would overwhelmingly prefer that the term disappear altogether. For families where cognitive disability is at issue, the term harkens back to a time where such children received no education at all, but lived out their lives apart from their families in segregated institutions.

Even more disturbing was the context in which Sen. Johnson used the term.

The interview in which Sen. Johnson spoke those words was in context of his new-found concern regarding an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice in response to a 2011 complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which highlights multiple families’ experiences of disability discrimination in voucher schools. Rather than taking up the cause of the families whose students experienced such discrimination, Sen. Johnson has instead been criticizing the investigation. The use of the phrase “those idiot inner-city kids” adds further insult to that injury.

Terri Hart-Ellis, whose 12-year-old daughter Addie has an IEP in the Whitefish Bay school district, struggled to find polite words to frame her outrage on her daughter’s behalf. Finally, shaking her head, she simply said: “No, Senator Johnson. Just… no.”

Stop Special Needs Vouchers requests an apology from Senator Johnson on behalf of students with disabilities statewide, an apology that acknowledges the magnitude of the harm caused by language that reinforces discrimination against individuals with disabilities.


Also online at The Wheeler Report, http://thewheelerreport.com/wheeler_docs/files/0724vouchers.pdf

Special Needs Vouchers and Undermined Teacher Licensure: A Toxic Combination

Special Needs Vouchers and Undermined Teacher Licensure: A Toxic Combination

For Immediate Release
18 June 2015

Madison, WI – “How can this be happening to students with disabilities in Wisconsin?” That’s the question on the minds of parents of students with disabilities all over the state, as the implications of the Joint Finance Committee’s special education bombshells become ever clearer.  Two particularly damaging proposals were introduced without warning or public discussion on May 19 and voted into the budget after midnight: special needs vouchers and a massive dilution of teacher licensure standards.  Taken in combination, these two proposals are even more damaging for students with special education needs in our state.

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have strongly objected to harmful special needs voucher proposals that have repeatedly been introduced and defeated in Wisconsin. Families are deeply concerned about the lack of rights and protections for students with disabilities in private voucher schools, and the increasing drain on funding for the public schools that must accept and educate students of all abilities.

Meanwhile, the proposal to credential grade 6-12 teachers in non-core subjects without even a bachelor’s degree, solely upon administrator request in public, charter, or private voucher schools, brings an additional hidden threat to the education of students with disabilities. Though special education is a specialized and demanding profession, it falls into the category of “any subject area excluding English, social studies, mathematics or science” as outlined in the motion.  The prospect of credentialing untrained, non-degreed “special educators” to teach in any type of publicly-funded school in Wisconsin has left parents of students with disabilities with their jaws on the floor.

“These proposals are downright disrespectful to children and families, not to mention the professional special educators in our public schools across the state,” says Tracy Hedman, whose 11-year-old son Cyril has an IEP in the Glendale – River Hills school district.  “What are we saying about how we value students with disabilities and those who teach them, when we say that just-about-anyone can get credentialed as special educators, and that voucher schools aren’t even required to address their educational needs?”
Kelli Simpkins, whose 13-year-old son Mickey has an IEP in the Madison school district, sees a bone-chilling prospect ahead as the two proposals interact.  “Can you imagine what a shady voucher-school operator could do with this?” she asks.  “They could hire anyone with a high-school diploma and declare that person to be a qualified special educator, no proof required.  Then they could market their newly

DPI-credentialed ‘special educators’ in combination with the special needs vouchers to unsuspecting parents, who will have no way to tell the difference. Why in the world are we making this possible?”

Neither the special needs vouchers nor the teacher licensure debasement proposal belong in Wisconsin’s budget.  The parents of Stop Special Needs Vouchers call upon the legislature to remove this toxic combination altogether, before it’s too late.

Also online at The Wheeler Report, 18 June 2015

Take Special Needs Vouchers Out of the Budget!

Take Special Needs Vouchers Out of the Budget!

As parents of students with disabilities, we have fought for years to protect robust public education for children across Wisconsin. We repeatedly have raised our voices to defeat the harmful special needs voucher bills that keep surfacing in Madison, pushed by big money from out of state.

Early in the morning of May 20, however, the Joint Finance Committee told us — figuratively speaking — to sit down and shut up.

With no opportunity for public input or debate whatsoever, and not even a hint that it was coming, the majority party members of the budget-writing committee suddenly voted special needs vouchers into the state budget. There was much self-congratulation before the vote about how important it is to “trust the parents” in matters of education.

If they had trusted us to testify, we could have told them exactly why parents like us, not to mention every disability advocacy organization in the state, oppose their special needs voucher proposals.

Private voucher schools are not required to educate students with special needs, as the public schools are. They need not have special educators on staff, nor are they required to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which establishes our children’s rights to a free appropriate public education with a legally binding Individualized Education Plan.

Voucher schools can expel or “counsel out” students they find too challenging to educate, and the public schools must take the rejected students back while the funding lags behind. We don’t know how many students with disabilities have even been allowed into voucher schools, because the schools haven’t been required to reveal how many such students are enrolled.

Yet, with all of these dodges in place, voucher schools in Milwaukee have had a long track record of failing to do any better than the Milwaukee Public Schools. Instead, we have scandals such as LifeSkills Academy, and the dozens of Milwaukee students who were abandoned when the academy’s leaders fled Wisconsin for Florida in the middle of the night. Incidentally, the new LifeSkills Academy in Daytona Beach is still open, relying now on Florida’s special needs voucher funding.

Meanwhile, voucher schools and the voucher lobby are very skilled at marketing. We’ve heard the pitches and seen the glossy brochures. There’s personal experience in our group of being taken in by what the voucher schools promised, until our children actually attended and discovered sad differences between the sales job and the reality.

It’s abundantly clear that Wisconsin’s voucher programs, both present and proposed, leave families at the mercy of the operators while draining the public schools of much-needed funding.

Four decades ago, families such as ours advocated to secure children with disabilities the right to a solid public education in neighborhood schools where the doors must be open to all children regardless of disability. We strongly object to having our tax dollars suctioned out of public schools, where those hard-won rights apply, and spent to lure families into private schools where federal special education rights and protections disappear to be replaced by nothing more binding than a warning of “buyer, beware!”

Our children deserve better. Wisconsin deserves better.

We call on the Legislature to walk away from the voucher lobby sales job. Take the special needs vouchers out of the state budget.

From Pamela DeLap (Oshkosh), Terri Hart-Ellis (Whitefish Bay), Amy Polsin (Lowell), Naomi Silver (River Falls), Kelli Simpkins (Madison) and Lennise Vickers (Milwaukee). All are members of Stop Special Needs Vouchers.

Appeared online in Madison’s CapTimes on June 16, and in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel on June 18.

Late Night Special Needs Voucher Vote Shocks Families of Students with Disabilities

May 20, 2015

Milwaukee, WI – Families of students with disabilities are waking up to shocking news of the early-morning vote by the Joint Finance Committee to introduce a special needs voucher program into the state budget. Families were afforded no opportunity to express their opposition to these harmful vouchers, as the proposal was announced on Tuesday with no prior public discussion.

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have strongly objected to harmful special needs voucher proposals that have repeatedly been introduced and defeated in Wisconsin. Families are deeply concerned about the lack of rights and protections for students with disabilities in private voucher schools, and the increasing drain on funding for the public schools that must accept and educate students of all abilities.

“In every special needs voucher proposal in every state, private school voucher students have had to give up their special education rights and protections,” said Terri Hart-Ellis, whose 11-year-old daughter Addie has an IEP in the Whitefish Bay school district. “And every time, the students remaining in the public schools stand to lose resources. As parents and citizens and taxpayers, we deserve a chance to make our case against these harmful vouchers. Last night’s vote was a travesty.”

Kelli Simpkins, whose 12-year-old son Mickey has an IEP in the Madison school district, is dismayed by both the process and the content of the budget vote. “Why did we not hear about this underhanded proposal until 2pm on Tuesday afternoon?” she asked. “Our voices have been silenced by budgetary sneak attack. Legislators know that parents all over Wisconsin, not to mention every disability organization in the state, have powerful objections to special needs vouchers – but somehow it didn’t seem to matter.”

Objections from families include not only the lack of rights and protection in voucher schools and the loss of resources for students in public schools, but also the flood of shady-operator schools that will emerge to take advantage of this new source of public funding. Parents remember all too well the cautionary tale of Lifeskills Academy of Milwaukee, the voucher school that suddenly fled the state in December 2013, leaving 66 Wisconsin students stranded and poorly educated. Lifeskills Academy reinvented themselves as a special needs voucher school in Florida, where they are still operating today.

The special needs vouchers do not belong in the budget, and do not belong in Wisconsin.


Milwaukee School Takeover Plan: Serious Unanswered Questions for Families of Students with Disabilities

May 14, 2015

Milwaukee, WI – Families of students with disabilities need answers to concerns about the impact of a proposal by Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Dale Kooyenga which would allow charter or voucher school operators to take over selected public schools in Milwaukee. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the “Opportunity Schools Partnership Program” (OSPP) might be folded into the state budget, which means that it could be voted on as early as next week, without a public hearing.

One out of five students in the Milwaukee public schools has a disability, while only one in ten charter students fall into that category. Since voucher schools do not report disability data, parents cannot even make that comparison. The proposal outline does not answer the question of whether the new operators would be required to serve the same students as were previously in the school.

Even more troubling, the plan implies that the resulting schools might be set up as charter or private voucher schools. Since the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to private voucher schools, it appears that twenty percent of students at a school that is turned into a private “choice” operation would suddenly lose the special education rights and protections that parents in a previous generation fought so long and hard to win.

Terri Hart-Ellis, parent from Whitefish Bay, is dismayed at the implications. “When do we get to talk about what this proposal means for students with disabilities?” she asked. “As written, this proposal turns public schools over to operators who either don’t serve students with disabilities in the same proportion, or aren’t even required to educate them at all. But we don’t have an actual bill to examine for details, and we might not even get to see it before it’s voted on.”

Lennise Vickers, parent from Milwaukee, has seen both sides of the voucher issue firsthand from a disability perspective. “At least when we were in the voucher school, nobody forced us to make that switch, and MPS was still there for me when I figured out that the vouchers were a mistake,” she said. “If a public school gets made into a voucher school, though, it looks like the families of kids like mine would lose their rights to an IEP and due process – maybe even the right to be there in the first place.”

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have strongly objected to harmful special needs voucher proposals that have repeatedly been introduced and defeated in Wisconsin. One of the most deeply-held concerns is what voucher schools are NOT required to do: educate any given student with a disability, craft a legally-enforceable Individualized Education Plan with family at the table, or hire staff with special education expertise. The OSPP appears to echo all these failings, and may be rushed into the budget as early as next week.

At the very least, the proposal should not be considered in the state budget but rather as a separate bill with its own public hearing, where questions can be answered and flaws can be fully exposed.


Testimony on the 2015/17 State Budget

The following testimony was submitted to the Joint Finance Committee on behalf of Stop Special Needs Vouchers regarding the Governor’s 2015/2017 biennial state budget proposal:

We are submitting this testimony on the 2015/2017 state budget proposal as members of the steering committee of Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a statewide grassroots group committed to quality inclusive public education for students of all abilities.  Many of us are parents of students or graduates with disabilities; some of us are graduates ourselves who had IEPs in public schools; and all of us are passionate about education for students with disabilities.

First, we would like to highlight an important aspect in which the 2015/2017 budget proposal is greatly superior to the one released in February 2013.  The budget proposal for the current biennium does NOT contain language regarding special needs vouchers, and we appreciate this.  At least four versions of harmful special needs voucher proposals have failed to pass in Wisconsin, in the face of immense opposition from parents, graduates, and education supporters like ourselves.  We hope that we have seen the last of such proposals in this state.

However, our opposition to past special needs voucher proposals also leads us to oppose the budget’s proposed expansion of the current statewide voucher program, as the concerns for students with disabilities are similar.

Attending private school via voucher is risky for students with disabilities for several reasons.  First and foremost, private voucher schools are not required to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Families of students with disabilities lose all their IDEA rights and protections as soon as they enroll in a private voucher school, including the right to a legally-enforceable Individualized Education Program.  Furthermore, Wisconsin’s laws regarding seclusion and restraint in schools, practices which disproportionately affect students with disabilities, do not apply in private schools.  Private schools are under no legal obligation to provide an appropriate education for students with disabilities, nor to hire necessary special educators and therapists.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin public schools enroll and educate all students regardless of disability, including the students that the voucher schools send back after the “third Friday count.”  Voucher expansion leads to increasing concentration of students with the most challenging disabilities in the public schools, while the funding increasingly shifts to the unaccountable private voucher schools.

For the sake of students with disabilities across the state, we ask that the voucher expansion be entirely removed from the state budget.

Regarding available funding for the education of students with disabilities, we are deeply disappointed that the budget proposal currently contains no increase in special education funding, making a total of eight years without any increase.  The percentage of state support for special education has been dropping for years, leaving local communities to struggle to make up the difference.  The longer this continues, the harder it will be for public schools to meet their obligations to our students.  Many of us have experienced this ongoing “squeeze” firsthand, as we advocate for what our children need in their neighborhood schools.  The proposal makes matters even worse with a $150 per pupil aid cut, which will put terrible pressure on district budgets for students of all abilities.

For the sake of students with disabilities across the state, we ask that the state budget break the 8-year drought in special education spending increases.  Restore the $150 per pupil cut, and invest in our children with spending increases for special education categorical aid and high-cost student aid.

Finally, since our group first came together, we have spoken about inequities in public school open enrollment for students with disabilities.  We raised those concerns with the Department of Public Instruction, and were pleased to see that DPI proposed using the budget to eliminate “undue financial burden” as a reason for open enrollment denial.  Unfortunately, this common-sense proposal was not included in the budget.

For the sake of students with disabilities across the state, we ask that the proposal for increased equity in open enrollment be added to the state budget.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


The Steering Committee of Stop Special Needs Vouchers

Patti Jo Becker – Oregon, WI
Paula Buege – Middleton, WI
Pam DeLap – Oshkosh, WI
Jason and Julie Endres – Eau Claire, WI
Lori Krueger Fatla – Milwaukee, WI
Kevin Fech – Cudahy, WI
Sally Flaschberger – Waukesha, WI
Nancy Gapinski – Glendale, WI
Terri Hart-Ellis – Whitefish Bay, WI  
Tracy Hedman – Glendale, WI 
Joanne Juhnke – Madison, WI 
Beth Moss – Madison, WI
Kimberly Nerone – Wauwatosa, WI
Donna Pahuski – Cambridge, WI
Katie Schierl – Neenah, WI
Kelli Simpkins – Madison, WI
Mary Swifka – New London, WI

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Testimony on AB1

2015 Assembly Bill 1: Public Hearing Testimony

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Donna Pahuski, and I am testifying on behalf of Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a statewide volunteer group led by families of students with special education needs.

I am also the proud mother of my 23 year old daughter, Mary, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Thanks to the investment that our neighborhood school made in her as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), she has now graduated from college and is enrolled at a medical school working on her Masters in Biotechnology. When asked about the major factors that contributed to her academic and social-emotional success, Mary summed up her experience in the Cambridge and Marshall school districts: “They were trained, ready and required by law to address my needs.”

Trained, ready, and required by law to address the needs of students with disabilities. Wisconsin should expect nothing less in terms of accountability from schools that educate our students using our tax dollars.

AB1 falls significantly short of those expectations in several areas.

First, it is still not widely understood that private voucher schools in Wisconsin are not required to abide by the IDEA. This fundamental lack of voucher-school accountability for students with disabilities is one of our major objections to special needs voucher proposals. AB1 does not address the issue and therefore will not change that basis for our opposition to special needs vouchers.

Second, in order to have useful comparisons of enrollment and achievement data for students with disabilities, the disability data must be reported using common definitions. Public and charter schools report their disability-related data according to educationally-based categories in Wisconsin state law, but AB1 makes no such requirement for private voucher schools. Unless the definitions are apples-to-apples, the data will be meaningless to the families who need the information.

Third, we know that students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by suspension and expulsion. However, private voucher schools are not currently required to report suspension and expulsion data, and AB1 fails to offer any correction to that.

Finally, AB1 includes provisions that would require converting public schools into independent charter schools under certain conditions. However, we know that Milwaukee’s charter schools and public schools are not currently serving comparable percentages of students with disabilities. Over 20 percent of MPS students are receiving special education services, while that number is under 10 percent in Milwaukee’s charter schools. When it comes to students with cognitive disabilities, the numbers are even more concerning: MPS educates a five-times-greater proportion of students with cognitive disabilities than Milwaukee’s independent charters. We have serious concerns about the prospect of turning over schools serving a high percentage of students with disabilities to a school sector that is currently failing to educate students with disabilities in fair proportions.

When it comes to students with disabilities, AB1 is a seriously flawed bill.

Thank you for your consideration of these issues.

Donna Pahuski
for Stop Special Needs Vouchers

Parent Quotes

“We should not even be considering a new voucher program when the current vouchers are so flawed!” — Tari from Madison, mother to Patrick

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