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September 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.

Parent Quotes

“Until private schools are held to the same standard and protections as public schools, many children with special needs will not receive an appropriate education there.” — Donna from Cambridge, mother to Mary

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