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June 2015

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.

Parent Quotes

“Public schools must abide by the Individuals and Disabilities Education Act, requiring specialized training for teachers and a standard of services to accommodate students with special needs. Private schools don’t have this obligation.” — Harriet, mother from Appleton

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