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2017

WILL’s “Alternative Facts” on Special Needs Voucher Expansion

You know you’ve struck a nerve when a lavishly-funded law firm starts publicly attacking volunteer grassroots advocacy groups.

In a post on September 11, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) produced a startling collection of “alternative facts” on the subject of special needs vouchers.  The post seizes upon four true statements made by Rep. Katrina Shankland during the Joint Finance Committee brief discussion before the party-line passage of an unvetted expansion of special needs vouchers, without opportunity for public testimony.  WILL then spins its readers down a rabbit hole where up is down, fact is myth, and parents who care about public education for students with disabilities are “special interest groups.”

The post may have been occasioned by Rep. Shankland’s pointing out the striking similarity between the Joint Finance special needs voucher expansion motion and a wish-list that WILL had published only days before.  Here was Rep. Shankland’s true statement on that score:

  • “(WILL) is getting their way when a lot of different parents groups, disability rights groups, and education professionals are asking for a fair shot for all of our kids.”  TRUE (even if WILL says otherwise)

WILL’s response:

This is most accurate if you replace “parents groups” with “special interest groups opposed to school choice.” …

Shankland is basing this on statements made about the SNSP made by anti-school choice groups, like Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin, who put out a press release following the passage of the bill that included some complaints from parents, Disability Rights Wisconsin, the teachers’ unions, and other groups. 

Let’s be clear: the parents of Stop Special Needs Vouchers and other all-volunteer grassroots organizations standing up for public education across the state of Wisconsin are not “special interest groups.” Our passionate, heartfelt dismay at the expansion of a program that undercuts our children’s neighborhood schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is much more than “some complaints.” And the idea that the Stop Special Needs Vouchers press release somehow speaks for teachers’ unions or any other group is simply laughable.

WILL’s post failed to include the list of organizations that co-signed an open letter to the Joint Finance Committee requesting that the special needs voucher program NOT be expanded.  Those groups, whose names Rep. Shankland read aloud at the JFC meeting, are listed below; some are all-volunteer, all are non-partisan, and not one single organization on the list deserves to be dismissed as a “special interest group.”

  • Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin
  • Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin
  • Autism Society of Wisconsin
  • Citizen Advocates for Public Education, Lake Mills
  • Community Advocates for Public Education, Middleton-Cross Plains
  • Disability Rights Wisconsin
  • Mental Health America of Wisconsin
  • NAMI Wisconsin
  • Parents for Public Schools of Milwaukee
  • Saint Croix Valley Friends of Public Education
  • School Funding Reform for Wisconsin, Stevens Point
  • Stop Special Needs Vouchers
  • Support Sun Prairie Schools
  • Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations
  • The Arc of Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools
  • Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities
  • Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services
  • Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired
  • Wisconsin Family Ties

 WILL also “alternative-facted” three other true statements.

  • “No data or evidence based research to show that students receive better outcomes in special needs voucher program.”  TRUE (even if WILL says otherwise)

What are the graduation rates for special needs voucher students compared to their public school peers? How do their academic achievements in reading and math compare? What about employment rates after leaving school?  Nobody knows.  The research does not exist.  The WILL blogpost manages to point to one lone 2003 report emanating from a free-market think tank, based solely on parental-satisfaction interviews with special needs voucher recipients in Florida.  This does not qualify as a research evidence base for comparative outcomes, by any stretch of the imagination.

  • “These kids lose their federal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”  TRUE (even if WILL says otherwise)

If anyone would like to fact-check this statement, a good place to start would be DPI’s “Comparison of Rights of Students with Disabilities and their Families under State and Federal Special Education Law and under the Wisconsin Special Needs Scholarship Program” document.  IDEA is not, and has never been, a “menu of services,” as WILL insinuates – and anyone with even a minimal understanding of special education law knows better than this.

  • “In that second year… (SNSP participating schools) are reimbursed for 90 percent of the cost, whether it’s 250, 500,000 or even a million dollars…”  TRUE (even if WILL says otherwise)

Rep. Shankland’s point about the lack of any upper bound on the revised funding structure is factually based on the motion text. WILL scoffs at the idea that any special needs voucher school would take advantage of the lack of cost-control in the proposal – but why in the world would we allow it, if we don’t want it to happen?

The parents of Stop Special Needs Vouchers stand by our call to Governor Walker to veto these unvetted, unnecessary, and underhanded expansions to the special needs voucher program.

– Contact: Kelli Simpkins, stopspecialneedsvouchers@gmail.com

Stop Special Needs Vouchers UPDATE and ACTION ALERT

Special Needs Voucher Expansion Voted Into 2017/19 State Budget
(And It’s Worse Than We Had Guessed)

As Stop Special Needs Vouchers warned in our August 30 call-to-action, the Joint Finance Committee did indeed spring a last-minute special needs voucher expansion into the state budget. The motion was made public at 2pm on Wednesday September 6 and voted into the 2017/19 budget on a party line vote 75 minutes later, with no opportunity for public input.

The expansions to the special needs voucher program that will now go to the full legislature are even more extreme than the proposals that had been floated by Assembly and Senate majority leadership over the summer, which had already been opposed by 20 education and disability advocacy organizations, including Stop Special Needs Vouchers (see 7/31 joint Memo to Joint Finance members opposing special needs scholarship expansion proposals).

The most startlingly-new item in the motion was a re-structuring of the special needs vouchers funding. If the new scheme is passed into law, starting in the 2018/19 school year, private schools will receive the standard voucher amount ($12,000 currently) but can calculate their actual costs for that year. If they spend less than the $12,000, they will get the full voucher amount the following year and continue to pocket the difference. If they spend more than $12,000, however, they can get up to $18,000 paid fully by the student’s home district, and anything over $18,000 will be paid at 90% from general-purpose revenue. Heads, the voucher lobby wins; tails, students with disabilities in the public schools lose! We even don’t know how much students in public schools will lose, because the new scheme did not have a fiscal estimate; the impact will not be felt until the first year of the next budget.

Two additional expansion items removed voucher enrollment conditions that were based on voucher-proponents’ own arguments about the supposed need for the program. From the beginning, we were told that students were trapped in their resident public schools by open enrollment denials, and these were the students for whom the program was being created. Now it has become clear that those reasons were never serious, because the expansion:

Eliminates the prior year open enrollment requirement
Eliminates the requirement that a student must be enrolled at a public school the year before

These two measures are expected to bring an additional 250 new students into the special needs voucher program, many of whom would already be in private schools, at a cost of $3.1 million dollars to the resident public school districts. For comparison’s sake, the entire total of additional funding that the Joint Finance Committee added for high-cost special education across the state was only $1.6 million.

Finally, the Joint Finance Committee approved a surprise restructuring of the open enrollment program for students with disabilities, paralleling the new special needs voucher funding structure and undercutting the balanced solution that was the result of months of careful stakeholder deliberations.

Left unaddressed was the ongoing freeze of special education categorical aid, now an entire shameful decade with no new funding, even as needs and costs have continued to rise.

For more information, please see Stop Special Needs Vouchers’ 9/7 press release:
Special Needs Voucher Expansion Proposal Once Again Tells Families of Students with Disabilities — Your Voices Don’t Matter

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have repeatedly stressed their concerns 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.

Kelli Simpkins, whose 14-year-old son Mickey has an IEP in the Madison school district, found herself with similar objections to the voucher expansion that she had to the 2015 early-morning vote that created the program. “We keep hearing that special needs vouchers are all about trusting the parents. If that’s the case, why are we not trusted to testify when the legislature considers big policy changes for students with disabilities?” she asked. “The changes to the special needs vouchers program are expected to funnel over three million dollars from the public schools into unaccountable private schools that don’t even have to accept our kids! Surely we ought to have a chance to weigh in on this?”

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) has a further summary of the Joint Finance Committee special needs voucher expansion vote:  JFC Approves Special Needs Voucher Expansion

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Action Step: Contact Governor Walker and Your Own Legislators

Now that the Joint Finance Committee has finished its work, the budget will go to the legislature for a vote, and then to Governor Walker for line-item vetoes and signature.

This is the final opportunity to let your legislators and Governor Walker know that you OPPOSE the special needs voucher expansion and open enrollment funding changes for students with disabilities.

– Please let your Assembly Representative and State Senator know that you want these last-minute additions REMOVED from the state budget (you can look up your legislators’ email and phone number by typing your address into the search box at https://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/)

– Please contact Governor Walker and ask him to VETO the special needs voucher expansion measures and open enrollment funding changes for students with disabilities, which he did not propose himself. (Email: governor@wisconsin.gov – Phone: (608) 266-1212)

Questions? Please let us know at stopspecialneedsvouchers@gmail.com.

Press Release: Special Needs Voucher Expansion Proposal Once Again Tells Families of Students with Disabilities – Your Voices Don’t Matter

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 7, 2017

Madison, WI – It’s déjà vu all over again for families of students with disabilities who have been doing their best for years to raise their voices in opposition to special needs vouchers. In May 2015, a post-midnight vote introduced a special needs voucher program into the state budget with no opportunity for public feedback. Now, on September 6 of 2017, the Joint Finance Committee introduced and passed a major expansion to the program, once again without opportunity for families to see the proposal and offer their testimony.

The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have repeatedly stressed their concerns 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.

Kelli Simpkins, whose 14-year-old son Mickey has an IEP in the Madison school district, found herself with similar objections to the voucher expansion that she had to the 2015 early-morning vote that created the program. “We keep hearing that special needs vouchers are all about trusting the parents. If that’s the case, why are we not trusted to testify when the legislature considers big policy changes for students with disabilities?” she asked. “The changes to the special needs vouchers program are expected to funnel over three million dollars from the public schools into unaccountable private schools that don’t even have to accept our kids! Surely we ought to have a chance to weigh in on this?”

Nancy Gapinski, whose 10-year old son Ben has an IEP in the Glendale-River Hills school district, wondered at the changing rationale for special needs vouchers that the new policy changes revealed. “My concerns with the special needs vouchers haven’t changed,” she said. “I still believe that increased funding for special education should go to the public schools, where the vast majority of children with disabilities are educated and where the rights and protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act apply. We were told two years ago that the special needs vouchers were needed due to students with disabilities being denied open enrollment between public school districts, and now we’re being told that open enrollment should play no part in special needs voucher enrollment. Is anyone even listening to what’s being said?”

Families’ objections to special needs voucher expansion 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 complete lack of evidence that voucher schools offer any better outcomes for students with disabilities.

What was true in 2015 is still true today: special needs voucher policy changes do not belong in the state budget.

URGENT Action Alert: Call/Email to Stop Special Needs Voucher Expansion in the 2017/19 State Budget!

Calls and emails needed: the Joint Finance Committee will be voting on a Special Needs Scholarship Program agenda item on TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 5.
(See the agenda here: http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/raw/cid/1399365)

Just like when the Joint Finance Committee voted the special needs voucher program into the 2015/17 budget, over the objections of parents and disability organizations across the state, the motion won’t be made public until the actual committee meeting.

However, the voucher lobby put out a wish list today, in a brief from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty at http://www.will-law.org/special-needs-scholarship-reform/.
They want to expand special needs vouchers by:
1) eliminating the requirement that a child must apply for open enrollment
2) eliminating the requirement that a child attend a public school the year prior, and
3) increasing funding.

We need to let the Joint Finance Committee know THIS WEEK that any expansion of funding or enrollment criteria for the special needs voucher program is unacceptable.

Here’s what they need to hear:
– We need our Wisconsin tax dollars to fund public education, where students with disabilities have the full rights and protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Categorical aid for special education in our public schools must be the first priority, and yet the committee has chosen to continue a full decade of flat-funding, even as costs continue to rise.  Public education MUST come first.
– Special needs vouchers are risky for students who take them and give up their IDEA rights, and harmful to students with disabilities in public schools, as increasingly more funding gets diverted into unaccountable private schools.
– Where is the evidence that special needs vouchers result in better outcomes for students with disabilities than special education in public schools? Why are we considering making investments in something unproven?
– Where is the opportunity for public testimony and deliberation on this significant policy change?
– Please vote AGAINST any expansion of special needs vouchers in the state budget.

CALLS:
Senator Darling (Co-Chair) – 608-266-5830
Representative Nygren (Co-Chair) – 608-266-2343
Senator Olsen (Vice-Chair) – 608-266-0751 
Representative Kooyenga (Vice-Chair) – 608-266-9180

Action Alert: Wisconsin State Budget!

Time to Speak Up on the Wisconsin State Budget!

The Joint Finance Committee will be holding six public hearings, starting next week, on the Wisconsin state budget for the next two years.

Here are some highlights (and low-lights) from Governor Walker’s 2017-19 budget proposal:

– A $200 per-pupil increase for students in public schools in each of the next two years
ASK: Keep this increase! Students with disabilities are students first and foremost, so this would help!

– $6 million across the biennium for school mental health, including new funding for school social workers, grants for districts to partner with community mental health providers, and training in important programs including Trauma Sensitive Schools and Youth Mental Health First Aid
ASK: Keep this crucial investment for students with mental health needs!

– A $217 per-pupil increase for private special needs voucher schools, as well as an expansion of the special needs voucher program (more money for a program in which students must give up rights and protections at the door)
ASK: Prioritize the public schools that serve all our students in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, rather than vouchers that require students to give up their IDEA rights and protections!

– The budget does NOT include an increase in special education categorical aids — this would make TEN YEARS of flat funding in the face of growing needs and inflation!
ASK: INCREASE special education funding to the level proposed by the Department of Public Instruction (28% reimbursement rate for 2017/18, 30% for 2018/19).

There are six Joint Finance Committee public hearings on the state budget, opportunities to testify in person (two-minute time limit, which is about 250 words). The Wisconsin Public Education Network — Stop Special Needs Vouchers is a member organization — has wonderful resources on making your voice heard, whether or not you are able to go to a hearing in person, at http://www.wisconsinnetwork.org/blog/budget

If you are able to attend a public hearing, be sure to look for the #GoPublic signs to connect with other public education supporters.

  • Monday, April 3, 10am – 5pm – UW-Platteville, Ullsvick Hall,30 South Hickory Street, Platteville, WI 53818
  • Wednesday, April 5, 10 am – 6pm – State Fair Park, Exposition Center, 8200 West Greenfield Avenue, West Allis, WI 53214 (Milwaukee)
  • Friday, April 7, 10am – 5pm – Berlin High School, Auditorium, 222 Memorial Drive, Berlin, WI 54923
  • Tuesday, April 18, 10am – 6pm – Spooner High School, Auditorium, 801 County Highway A, Spooner, WI 54801
  • Wednesday, April 19, 10am – 5pm – Ellsworth High School, Gymnasium, 323 West Hillcrest Street, Ellsworth, WI 54011
  • Friday, April 21, 10am – 5pm – Marinette High School, Auditorium, 2135 Pierce Avenue, Marinette, WI 54143

One of the many ways to make your voice heard if you can’t be there in person (many of us do have weekday commitments, after all!) is to email written testimony to: BudgetComments@legis.wisconsin.gov

Send a copy to your own state legislators as well — you can look them up with the “Find My Legislators” search at http://legis.wisconsin.gov/

Questions? Let us know at StopSpecialNeedsVouchers@gmail.com

Thank you for standing up for students with disabilities!

Action Alert: State Superintendent Election, Tuesday April 4!

Vote, Vote, Vote! Wisconsin State Superintendent Election, Tuesday April 4!

Wisconsin will elect a state superintendent of public instruction on Tuesday April 4, a crucial opportunity to speak up for students with disabilities in Wisconsin!

On the ballot are current superintendent Tony Evers, and challenger Lowell Holtz.

Here’s how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sums up the race:

“A staunch advocate of public schools, Tony Evers will defend his seat in the April 4 election against school choice proponent Lowell Holtz.”

DPI race between Tony Evers, Lowell Holtz centers on future of education in Wisconsin (Journal Sentinel, 3/25/2017)
http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/elections/2017/03/25/dpi-race-between-tony-evers-lowell-holtz-centers-future-education-wisconsin/99491636/

Tony Evers opposes special needs vouchers.
Lowell Holtz promotes “a voucher in every backpack.”

Your vote is your voice — VOTE on Tuesday April 4!

THANK YOU!

Press Release: Parents Aghast at DeVos Confirmation Hearing Statements

For Immediate Release
19 January 2017

Madison, WI – “Goodbye, special education.” That was the despairing online response of one Wisconsin parent of children with disabilities, upon watching the Senate confirmation hearing Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers from across Wisconsin watched in disbelief as DeVos told Sen. Tim Kaine that meeting the requirements of the federal law known as the  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was “a matter that is best left to the states.” The educational rights and protections that families worked so hard in previous decades to win were suddenly declared as optional by the nominee for the position responsible for administering them.

“I couldn’t sleep last night; haunting me were visions of what the DeVos appointment would mean for my kids, my schools and my community,” says Terri Hart-Ellis, whose 13 year old daughter Addie has an IEP in the Whitefish Bay school district.  “IDEA guides and protects the supports needed for my daughter to be successful in school, for her teachers to be able to be effective.  Without these protections for her and guidance for her teachers, her future is in doubt and the school community on the whole loses out.”

Disbelief among the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers soon became determination, as parents mobilized to call the members of the Senate HELP Committee and encourage them to block the DeVos confirmation.

Nancy Gapinski posted a photo of her 9-year-old son Ben who has an IEP in the Glendale-River Hills School District, playing bass at his first orchestra concert this week, with a plea to family and friends. “As a parent of a child with autism,” she wrote, “I am begging all of you to call your senators to say that you oppose Ms. DeVos’ appointment. If you care about my son at all, call today.” Without the services provided under the IDEA, she points out, her son’s success as a member of the school orchestra would have been no better than an unattainable dream. She adds, “I worry about a future in which the Department of Education’s leader does not know about federal protections under the IDEA, or seem to care that a consequence of federal dollars going to private schools without any rules or regulations is that children with disabilities are discriminated against and under-served.”

For parents of students with disabilities across the state, the rights and protections of the IDEA are worth fighting for.  The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers will not stand quietly by for the confirmation of a Secretary of Education who either does not understand or does not value the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and everything it means for our children.

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Parent Quotes

“We should not be spending precious public tax dollars on an education that does not guarantee qualified staff, necessary therapies and a true Individualized Education Program which must be implemented as written with parents at the table.”

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