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May 2015

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.


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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