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