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Candidate Positions on Special Needs Vouchers Now Available Online

August 4, 2014

Madison, WI – The families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers today unveil an online compilation of Wisconsin candidate survey responses, past statements, and voting records on special needs vouchers, online at http://www.stopspecialneedsvouchers.org/candidates/.  After successfully opposing the harmful special needs voucher proposals in recent legislative sessions, parents of students with disabilities are eager to disseminate the candidates’ positions, as the primary election approaches.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers sent the following question to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and the state legislature: Do you support the creation of a statewide special needs voucher program in Wisconsin, as proposed in Wisconsin’s past two legislative sessions?  Why, or why not?

“It’s important to know what the candidates have said and done regarding special needs vouchers,” said steering committee member Terri Hart-Ellis of Whitefish Bay, mom to 10-year-old Addie who has Rubenstein-Taybi Syndrome.  “Senator Fitzgerald has announced that special needs vouchers are ‘teed up’ for next year, so these elections could make all the difference in our ability to defend the right of Wisconsin students to a free, appropriate public education.”

“We spoke out against the special needs vouchers last spring, and the legislature listened,” said steering committee member Kelli Simpkins of Madison, mom to 11-year-old Mickey who has epilepsy.  “The last thing Wisconsin needs is unaccountable schools like LifeSkills Academy popping up all over the state to take advantage of our students and our special-education tax dollars.  But now we need to inform ourselves on where the candidates stand, and then speak at the ballot box.”

Stop Special Needs Vouchers thanks the candidates who took the time to respond to our survey and make their positions known.  Early voting for the primary is currently underway, and Election Day is Tuesday August 12.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin 2014-08-04 press release (PDF)



Candidate Survey Question Sent

Stop Special Needs Vouchers has sent the following survey question to all Wisconsin candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and state legislative seats:

“Do you support the creation of a statewide special needs voucher program in Wisconsin, as proposed in Wisconsin’s past two legislative sessions? Why, or why not?”

While we won’t be endorsing candidates, we will be publicizing the answers received (due August 1) as well as past voting/co-sponsorship records and public statements on special needs vouchers.

Taxpayers Deserve to See the Voucher School Data, Say Families of Students with Disabilities

June 19, 2014

Madison, WI – Families of students with disabilities from across the state are dismayed at the hostile reaction to the reasonable request that Wisconsin’s private taxpayer-supported voucher schools should provide basic data on the disability status of their voucher students. The data request from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) comes fourteen months after the U.S. Department of Justice responded to a complaint from Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin ACLU, on behalf of families of students with disabilities who have experienced discrimination in Milwaukee’s private voucher schools.

“It all comes down to fairness and accountability,” says Joanne Juhnke, Madison parent of a student on the autism spectrum and chair of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee. “Wisconsin is sending our tax dollars and some of our most vulnerable children into private voucher schools, and in return we’ve encountered a black hole of data resistance. The taxpayers and families of Wisconsin deserve to know the full extent to which private voucher schools may be discriminating against students with disabilities. This utter lack of transparency is yet another reason why we should not even be considering special needs vouchers in the state of Wisconsin.”

Lennise Vickers of Milwaukee isn’t surprised that some voucher schools would prefer not to publicize their disability data, given her family’s experience of “smoke and mirrors” recruiting practices when she briefly enrolled her daughter, who has Emotional Behavior Disorder, in a Milwaukee voucher school several years ago. “I felt like I was duped. The voucher school teacher had no desire or training to help my daughter. When voucher schools take students with disabilities and public money, they should have to follow all the rules that the public schools do, including reporting their numbers.”

The antagonism to disability data reporting takes on additional overtones in context of the so-called Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, recently introduced at the federal level. In an astonishing disregard for the federal rights of students with disabilities, the CHOICE Act would amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to allow federal IDEA funds to flow into private voucher schools, while explicitly exempting those schools from abiding by the IDEA itself. The CHOICE Act also includes a truncated “non-discrimination” statement that would leave the door wide open for private voucher schools to openly discriminate on the basis of disability, actually codifying such discrimination-permission into the IDEA itself.

Wisconsin must ensure that our students with disabilities are not cheated of their civil rights when educated in private voucher schools. Proposed voucher expansion, including special needs vouchers, is more problematic than ever in the presence of such resistance to accountability as is currently being demonstrated.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers calls on Wisconsin’s private voucher schools to provide the requested data by the June 30 deadline, and urges our federal Congressional delegation to oppose the CHOICE Act (S.1909/H.R.4773).

For more information on Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a parent-led statewide grassroots group, see our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers

 This press release is also posted at The Wheeler Report for June 19, 2014.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin Opposes Federal Special Needs Voucher Funding

Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin, a statewide grassroots group of families, is firmly opposed to S.1909/H.R.4773, the so-called Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, as introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN).

Because of the activism of families before us, our children attend school together with their neighborhood peers. Across the country, students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education, with legally enforceable protections, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The rights and protections of the IDEA do not apply, however, in private voucher schools. Private schools are not required to accept any given student with a disability, and families have no recourse if the private school decides that a student is no longer welcome. Private voucher schools need not have therapists or special educators on staff, nor are such schools required to provide specific services or supports such as therapies or assistive technologies. Meanwhile, vouchers drain funds from the neighborhood schools where IDEA does apply, that are required to educate all students regardless of disabilities. In short, special needs vouchers are risky for those who accept them and forfeit their IDEA rights, and harmful for students with more challenging disabilities who are left concentrated in the public schools with less systemwide funding.

While the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have successfully advocated against special needs voucher proposals in Wisconsin, the CHOICE Act would provide start-up grants for such detrimental programs to be developed in additional states. Furthermore, the Act would amend the IDEA itself to allow federal IDEA funding to be spent in existing voucher or tax credit programs for students with disabilities, while de-coupling that funding from all the requirements of the IDEA.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers objects strongly to the CHOICE Act’s proposal to spend federal dollars on propagating harmful voucher programs, especially in light of the chronic underfunding of the IDEA. The additional provision of the CHOICE Act to exempt a portion of those scarce IDEA funds from the IDEA itself, and spend those dollars in unaccountable private schools, is completely unacceptable and displays an intense level of disregard for the struggles of the families who brought the IDEA into being in the first place, and for the students that the IDEA now serves and protects.

We urge our Senators and Representatives to join with us in opposing S.1909/H.R.4773. Public funding for students with disabilities belongs in public schools, where the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remains in force.

via The Wheeler Report: Stop Special Needs Vouchers Opposes Federal Special Needs Voucher Funding


Special Education Act Would Leave Children More Vulnerable

by Gov. William Winter, Governor of Mississippi 1980-1984

The Mississippi House of Representatives took a bold step on Wednesday to protect Mississippi’s most vulnerable children by defeating The Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act. The courageous lawmakers who voted against this act did so knowing full well that their protection of vulnerable children would likely be misrepresented by those who do not understand, or do not acknowledge, the full ramifications of this bill.

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requiring that public schools identify and provide the necessary accommodations for all children with special needs to be able to fulfill their academic potential. In the decades since, public schools have made vast improvements to their special education programs, and they have become a lifeline to the families and children who rely on them. School are required by law to provide the services called for in a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

As school districts’ budgets have been decimated by consistent underfunding by our State Legislature, it has become increasingly difficult for them to provide every accommodation requested by every parent of a child with special needs. Understandably, those parents are angry. Public schools are provided between $1,200 and $2,000 per child to provide all accommodations needed, though the actual cost of the services is many times the amount, often $50,000 or more per child. Districts make up the balance with funds they receive through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The solution would be for the Legislature to provide the funding required for schools to pay for the services. Instead, legislators proposed a bill that required parents of students with special needs to withdraw their children from public schools and relinquish their rights to federal protection in order to receive a $6,000 voucher to pay for private school tuition, therapy, or a host of other options.

Too many have fought for too long to ensure this legal protection for parents to be asked to relinquish the rights of their children to have their special needs met. Our obligation is to serve them. We must, as a people, provide their schools the means to do so.

The private schools proposed to be funded through vouchers were under no obligation to serve these children. They were explicitly guarded from oversight and were permitted to deny enrollment to children based upon ability or the school’s admissions policies. The bill even required that the private schools receiving taxpayer funding would not have their identities revealed.

By and large, the services required by children with special needs are not offered in private schools. They do not have teachers trained in special education or professional therapists who can meet their needs. Special schools that do offer such services charge tuition well in excel of $6,000, eliminating those as viable options for the overwhelming majority of Mississippi families.

The bill did not permit voucher-holders to home-school their children, insisting that they be enrolled in a school that would likely command the entire amount of the voucher, perhaps more, for tuition, leaving nothing for therapy or accommodations.

The most critical challenge confronting our state is to meet the educational needs of every child, regardless of ability, affluence, race, or creed. To believe that we can accomplish that by transferring state funding from public to private schools that are under no obligation to meet the needs of the children in their care is pure folly.

While it may be tempting to grasp the easy fix for a few, the tenets of a moral society demand that we do more.

Under-funding special education services for all in public schools, and proposing to fund a few, private schools that offer no services, puts children with special needs at serious risk of harm. The better solution is to provide the necessary funding to ensure an education worthy of all children who have set their sights on the stars.

William F. Winter is the former Democratic Governor of Mississippi (1980-1984)
Reprinted with permission from Governor Winter.  The original appeared on April 18 in the DeSoto Times Tribune.


When Schools Choose, Students with Disabilities Lose

First published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online, 1/23/2014

In the window of the now-defunct LifeSkills Academy on N. 38th St. in Milwaukee, there hangs a forlorn sign advertising School Choice Week, slated for Jan. 26 to Feb. 1. The current administration in Madison has declared Wisconsin School Choice Week every year since 2011, and this year likely will be no different.

School Choice Week poster in window of defunct LifeSkills Academy building

LifeSkills Academy, as a promoter of “school choice,” made some jaw-dropping choices. One such choice was to close without warning in the middle of the night in December, disrupting the education of 66 students as their families scrambled to find alternatives, while keeping the full $200,000 it had received in taxpayer funds for a semester left unfinished. Another was to open a new LifeSkills Academy in Florida as a McKay Special Needs “scholarship” school, qualifying for that state’s special needs vouchers by declaring sudden expertise in various disabilities.

As parents of public school students with significant developmental disabilities, we find this sequence of school choices to be more chilling than a Wisconsin winter. The story of LifeSkills Academy also casts a revealing light on a revamped special needs voucher bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature on Tuesday, previous iterations of which have been blocked through determined opposition from families and disability organizations statewide.

Because of the activism of parents before us, our children attend school with their neighborhood peers. Across the country, students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education, with legally enforceable protections, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Unfortunately, the rights and protections of the IDEA do not apply in private voucher schools such as LifeSkills Academy, and special needs vouchers would not change that. Private voucher schools are not required to have therapists or special educators on staff, and Wisconsin’s existing voucher program has a dismal track record of expelling or “counseling out” students with disabilities. The revamped special needs voucher bill puts no limit on the number of vouchers that could be granted statewide, reducing funding available for every school district in the state. While the recent statewide voucher expansion specified that schools must be in existence for at least two years before qualifying to take vouchers, the new special needs voucher bill makes no such provision, leaving the doors wide open for fly-by-night schools to choose Wisconsin solely to take advantage of the vouchers — and of some of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable students.

The special needs voucher threat to the students of Wisconsin is why we are part of Stop Special Needs Vouchers, a statewide parent-led grass-roots group that advocates in favor of inclusive public education and in opposition to voucher schemes funded and supported in large part by out-of-state interests. We are deeply opposed to this latest attempt to pull public money out of public schools and into private schools where students with disabilities surrender their rights at the door, if indeed the door is not slammed in their faces.

The private schools are the entities that would be given the real choice. And when private schools get to choose, students with significant disabilities lose. Our public school students stand to lose funding for critical shared resources, at a time when public education funding already has been deeply slashed. Students with disabilities deserve a quality education.

We cannot let School Choice Week declarations and harmful special needs voucher legislation distract us from this goal. Instead, we should be supporting and strengthening Wisconsin’s public schools. Together we can work to restore public school funding, perhaps with the recently reported state surplus, rather than drain funding via vouchers. We also propose to improve open enrollment, so students with disabilities have the same opportunity as their nondisabled peers to choose between public school districts, where their rights are protected and there are assurances of quality.

Together we call on the Legislature to work with us on these issues and to reject special needs vouchers outright in 2014.

Submitted by Pamela DeLap of Oshkosh, Kevin Fech of Cudahy, Nancy Gapinski of Glendale, Terri Hart-Ellis of Whitefish Bay, Tammie Hefty of Mount Horeb and Joanne Juhnke of Madison. 


Operators of Failed WI Voucher School Move to Florida, Open Special Needs Voucher School

For parents of students with disabilities in Wisconsin, the Florida version of special needs vouchers has loomed large as a cautionary tale.  In June 2011, the Miami New Times reported “McKay Scholarship Program Sparks Cottage Industry of Fraud and Chaos.”  The article related appalling accounts of schools held in strip malls, with inexperienced teachers and no curriculum or materials.  Fraud runs rampant, with almost no oversight or accountability from the state.  The vouchers, concluded the reporter, were “like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash.”

Since forming as a group in November of 2012, the parents of Stop Special Needs Vouchers have worked tirelessly to prevent such vouchers from being inflicted on the state of Wisconsin.  Special needs vouchers would funnel tax dollars from our already-underfunded public schools into unaccountable private schools, where students lose their federal special-education rights and protections.  Public schools educate everyone, regardless of disability; private voucher schools are notorious for cherry-picking the students they deem “easier” to educate, while students with more intensive and expensive challenges remain in the public schools.

We have seen this dynamic underway already in the Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher program, where private schools are not accountable to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Many families have experiences of students with disabilities who were returned from voucher schools to the public schools, after the voucher schools had received tax money for the semester.  According to public testimony from Bob Peterson of Milwaukee this past October, “We know that between the ‘third Friday’ and second of January there is an exodus from certain voucher and charter schools… Last year between the ‘third Friday’ and the first of December, 448 students left the voucher and charter schools; 142 of them turned out to be special ed students.”

Now we have further troubling evidence connecting a failed voucher school in Wisconsin to the special needs voucher boondoggle in Florida.

Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the story on Janaury 14: Milwaukee voucher school LifeSkills Academy closes ‘in the dead of the night’.  LifeSkills Academy had 66 voucher-funded students when it closed down overnight; only one of those students was proficient in reading and math.  The students ended up at other schools, but, as the article reported, “The DPI is not able to recoup public money spent by voucher schools that do not finish the year.”

The depth of dysfunction at LifeSkills Academy was laid bare by a parent review on the GreatSchools.com site in 2013.  According to the parent:

This is among the worst schools I have ever seen. Poor administrative leadership and accountability, low morale, extreme unprofessionalism, the lack of organizational structure, scarce resources, low teacher creativity, loose student environment, and low faculty talent are just some of the reasons why this school is not only a scam but it perpetuates the issues our city is experiencing with juvenile delinquency, student illiteracy, and dismantling any hope that any attending student might have for being successful. I quickly corrected a mistake that I made for allowing my son to attend this “school” when I saw that he never had homework and his text book was photocopied, 3 grade levels below, and published in the late 1980′s. This school is run like a small family church and not like an academic institution.

In a follow-up article, the Journal Sentinel trailed the proprietors of the failed LifeSkills Academy: Leaders of closed Milwaukee voucher school are now in Florida.  According to the subsequent story, “Records show Taron and Rodney Monroe started a new private Christian school this year in Daytona Beach. While the school in Milwaukee was running on fumes, they were telling Florida friends they had experience getting government grants for religious schools.”  The new school was also named LifeSkills Academy.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers has learned that the new iteration of LifeSkills Academy in Florida did indeed succeed in qualifying as a voucher school, for Florida’s McKay special needs voucher program.  On a directory of McKay scholarship program private schools on the Florida Department of Education web site, LifeSkills Academy is listed as a McKay school in the Volusia school district, serving disability-types of Emotional/Behavioral Disability, Specific Learning Disability, Gifted, and Intellectual Disability.

The idea of such a school simply declaring themselves as expert in special education should send shivers down the spine of every parent of a student with disability-related educational needs.

The scandal of LifeSkills Academy voucher school, both in Wisconsin and Florida, must serve as a vivid warning for our state, as voucher expansion plans continue to surface in our state legislature.  The voucher experiment is riddled with failure and fraud.  We cannot allow special needs vouchers to multiply the damage in Wisconsin.

– Joanne Juhnke
Chair, Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee


To help special needs students, end voucher expansion

Letter to the Editor, Capital Times, 27 November 2013

Dear Editor: In her recent letter, Rachel Angel overlooked some troubling issues when she suggested using vouchers to educate students with special needs, on the cheap.

Unfortunately, many Wisconsinites are not aware that students with special needs who attend private voucher schools give up their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Not only that, voucher schools don’t have to provide special education staff and aren’t legally required to meet the student’s educational needs as the law requires of the public schools.

In addition, public schools are open to all regardless of disability, while many private schools prefer to educate only the less-challenging students, leading to widespread cherry-picking. The students with the more significant challenges remain in the public schools, with ever-shrinking resources as our tax dollars flow away into unaccountable voucher schools along with selected students.

For the well-being of our most vulnerable students, Wisconsin needs to end the voucher expansion, and strongly resist any further attempts to create a special needs voucher program.

Joanne Juhnke
Steering committee chair, Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin Madison


Fitzgerald says special needs voucher expansion coming back.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers celebrated the removal of the harmful special needs voucher proposal from the Wisconsin state budget proposal… but before the budget was even signed, the Wisconsin Reporter ran a story indicating that the proposal was slated to return in the fall.

Fitzgerald Says Special Needs Voucher Expansion Coming Back

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, left the door open for expansion of school choice for special needs students, saying the Senate will take a closer look at a controversial initiative that was left out of the Republican budget proposal this fall. 

“We didn’t address the special needs question,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Thursday in Mayville. “I think the reason for that is because there’s two different approaches. One is to address it with a scholarship, a voucher. The other is to address it with open enrollment.”

Disability rights advocates, who opposed the scholarship, are also trying to change open enrollment rules. 

“We are looking at ways to make the open enrollment law more usable for kids with special needs,” Monica Murphy, managing attorney for schools and civil rights at Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office, previously told Wisconsin Reporter. “They are covered under it, but there’s a lot of difficulty. It’s not quite as available for kids with special needs as regular kids.” 

Parents of special needs students who opposed the scholarship argued that the proposal deserved a public hearing and to go through the legislative process.



June 6, 2013

Wisconsin Families Appreciate JFC Removal of Special Needs Vouchers, 
Will Continue to Advocate for Students with Disabilities 

Madison, WI – All across Wisconsin, the families of Stop Special Needs Vouchers welcomed the good news on Wednesday morning that the Joint Finance Committee had removed the harmful special needs vouchers proposal from the state budget. The special needs vouchers would have funneled critical taxpayer funding out of public schools into private voucher schools that lack accountability and are not required to abide by the rights and protections of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Joanne Juhnke, parent advocate and chair of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee, promised that the group would continue its vigilance as well as working proactively toward improved inclusive public education. “We appreciate that legislators listened to families from across the state, expressing our concerns for the negative impact the special needs vouchers would have had for students with disabilities, and we intend to continue to work together on behalf of our children and their fellow students,” she said.

According to Pam DeLap, a parent who drove from Oshkosh to Madison to witness the late-night JFC deliberations, the removal of the special needs vouchers was welcome but grave concerns remain. “The defeat of the special needs vouchers is a victory for our children and the investment the state of Wisconsin makes in them through their public school education, but the statewide expansion of unaccountable school vouchers is a concern for students with disabilities as well. We heard in committee debate that voucher schools do not require certified special education teachers and need not abide by Wisconsin’s regulations on seclusion and restraint.”

“Wisconsin’s families and disability organizations have opposed the special needs vouchers from the beginning,” said Terri Hart-Ellis, a Whitefish Bay parent who also serves on the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee. “We spoke up about the segregation and other harm that special needs vouchers can do, and the finance committee listened. We hope other states are watching.”

The commitment and dedication of Stop Special Neeeds Vouchers to our children, our students, and our collective Wisconsin future will remain constant and unwavering. For more information on the parent group Stop Special Needs Vouchers, see our Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/StopSpecialNeedsVouchers


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Parent Quotes

“When voucher schools take students with disabilities and public money, they need to follow every rule and guideline to make sure they are educated – and that’s not happening.” — Lennise from Milwaukee, mother to Aquila

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