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.