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My Opposition to Special Education Vouchers

My Opposition to Special Education Vouchers
by Nissan Bar-Lev

Nissan Bar-Lev is the Director of Special Education for Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 7.

The Wisconsin Legislature is considering “Special Education Voucher” legislation.  If enacted, the Wisconsin Legislature will deprive students with disabilities and their families of their rights, procedural safeguards and protections established over the past 40 years by state and federal laws.

The provision of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities has been the heart and soul of state (Wisconsin Chapter 115 since 1973) and federal [Public Law 94-142 & Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)] laws since 1975.

This historic FAPE legislation guarantees that

(1) Students with disabilities receive services by appropriately licensed staff;

(2) Appropriate Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) are implemented within specific timeframes through individualized instruction, showing educational benefits and progress toward IEP goals;

(3) Confidentiality, access to records and timely notices to parents are followed;

(4) A host of procedural safeguards to insure appropriate services are adhered to;

(5) Specific disciplinary procedures are followed;

(6) Parents who disagree with any of the above provisions have access to a host of IDEA procedures for complaints and appeals, including due process hearings; and

(7) most important, all of the above guarantees are at public expense, at no cost to parents of students with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the proposed “Special Education Voucher” legislation does not require private schools to follow the above FAPE guarantees, nor can FAPE be implemented in private schools.  Students with disabilities and their parents who accept a “Special Education Voucher” and enroll in a private school, will not be able to count on FAPE guarantees to insure appropriate services. In other words, parents would not have the support of federal IDEA laws to demand IEP revisions or re-evaluations, to demand licensed teachers, therapists or aides, to demand a meaningful transition plan to adult life, or to access any of the other FAPE guarantees that are available in public schools. 

This would be an especially sad day for me, a practitioner of special education. Back in 2005, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction convened a small group of stakeholders to realign Wisconsin Chapter 115 with the federal IDEA law. I represented the school administration perspective. Jointly, and with skillful representation from Parent Advocacy organizations, School Board Association and Teacher Unions, we established a realigned new Wisconsin Chapter 115, protecting the rights of special education students and their families while delivering high quality special education services in schools. This legislation, hailed by many as a national model of stakeholders¹ involvement (parents and school organizations working in tandem), was passed unanimously by both the Senate and Assembly and signed by the Governor into law on July 1, 2006.

Unfortunately, the “Wisconsin Special Education Voucher” legislation will negate Wisconsin and federal special education laws to rendering them non-relevant and meaningless.

Wisconsin Legislators, please reject the “Wisconsin Special Education Voucher” legislation! Special education with its FAPE protection can only be delivered in public schools.

This piece was originally published on 2/3/2013 to the mailing lists of WI FACETS and the Autism Society of Wisconsin.  Republished with permission from the author.

Elevator Speeches

One of our advocates recently had the opportunity to speak with a state senator and a state representative at a local listening session. She asked them to share their thoughts on special needs vouchers and in turn they asked her to give a brief description of the program since they were not familiar with the details.

This is when an “elevator speech” came in handy. She was nervous and a little shaky, but since she had an elevator speech prepared she knew she could share a few facts. She was able to quickly describe what the special needs voucher program looks like and outline a few of her concerns. Both legislators indicated they would further investigate the issue, and our advocate was able to speak with the senator’s staffer after the meeting to provide more details.

So, what’s an elevator speech?

It is a concise summary of an issue that is just long enough to share with someone in the time it takes to ride the elevator together – a situation in which you might find yourself someday! If not an elevator, it might be a listening session or during a conversation with a friend or family member. You never know when you might have an opportunity to share a little bit about special needs vouchers!

When preparing an elevator speech, pare down your list of details and potential concerns to the few you feel are most important and will make the biggest impact. An elevator speech is a brief outline and does not usually include all details – think of it as planting a seed, or starting a conversation.

Once you’ve narrowed down the things you would like to include in your speech, it may help to write out a short script and then practice. It may feel awkward to practice out loud, but it is definitely worth it. You never know when you will have a few seconds with someone with whom you want to share the stop special needs vouchers message!

While preparing your own elevator speech, check out our new Take Action tab here on the blog. We will keep that page up to date with specific action items as we learn more about specific legislation.

Special Needs Vouchers Are An Empty Promise

Check out this op-ed published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  speaking out against Special Needs Vouchers. Here’s an excerpt:

What perhaps is most surprising about the interest in special needs vouchers is that Wisconsin doesn’t need them. No statewide disability or parent organization is asking for them. Wisconsin has one of the strongest public education systems in the country – and that goes for students with disabilities as well.

Let’s work together to maintain the high level of quality public school education for all school children in Wisconsin. Click the link here to read the full text.

It’s Time to Fix Public School Choice (Open Enrollment) for Students With Disabilities

Did you know that school choice already exists statewide in Wisconsin, among public schools?

The process is called open enrollment, and it allows families to apply for their children to attend school in a school district other than the one in which they live. The district they apply to enter is called the nonresident district; the district in which they live is the resident district.

Not every open enrollment application is accepted, however. In 2011-2012, 28% of applications for students without disabilities were denied.*  For students with disabilities, the percentages are somewhat higher: 34% of such applications were denied by the nonresident district, and 10% were denied by the resident district. The denials by the resident districts and nonresident districts overlap, so it is reasonable to estimate that the total denials for students with disabilities are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40%.

Supporters of special needs vouchers frequently quote the 40%-denial statistic as if it proved the need for vouchers. This is not only a misleadingly-selective interpretation of the data, but also a misunderstanding of what special needs vouchers would actually do.

When voucher proponents cite that 40% of open enrollment applications of students with disabilities are denied, they never mention the corresponding figure that 28% of students without disabilities are denied as well! In fact, about a third of the reasons given for nonresident districts denying open enrollment applications for students with disabilities are non-disability-related reasons.

Vouchers won’t change that. If a nonresident district doesn’t have space, for example, a voucher won’t make that space appear. If the nonresident district doesn’t offer 4K, they don’t offer 4K whether there’s a voucher involved or not.

The other two-thirds of reasons given for nonresident districts to deny open enrollment applications for students with disabilities are special education related, such as lack of special-education space, or program or services not being available.

Vouchers won’t change that either. Many voucher proponents don’t realize that no school, whether public or private, is required to accept a student with a voucher. If a nonresident school doesn’t have the special education programming or space, a voucher won’t compel them to accept a student who needs those things.

That leaves a much smaller open enrollment issue, and it is one that can and should be solved by legislation specific to open enrollment, rather than via the pitfalls and empty promises of the special needs vouchers.

Ten percent of open enrollment applications for students with disabilities in 2011/2012 were denied by the resident district, for “undue financial burden.” In some cases “undue financial burden” may have been the only reason for denial, while in other cases it may have overlapped with denial reasons from nonresident districts. “Undue financial burden” is currently allowed as a reason for open enrollment denial only when special educational needs are involved. It comes about because the resident district is responsible for funding the student even when he or she attends in a nonresident district.

Since “undue financial burden” is what we’re really trying to fix when it comes to open enrollment – let’s fix it within the public school system! The legislature can solve the problem of “undue financial burden” by reallocating funding for students with special needs, relieving the resident district of the issue and removing it as an open enrollment denial option.

At Stop Special Needs Vouchers, we want to improve the public school open enrollment system so that students with disabilities have equal choice between public schools as do students without disabilities. While the inequity is not as great as voucher proponents would have us believe, it is still a problem and needs attention.

We urge the Wisconsin legislature to address the question of “undue financial burden” in open enrollment as a public-school issue rather than letting it be conflated with voucher arguments. When taxpayer money goes to public schools, including through open enrollment, students with disabilities have rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When taxpayer money leaves the public school system via vouchers, the IDEA rights and protections for the voucher students would disappear as well. The deeply-flawed special needs voucher proposal, including its lack of accountability and rights, is a separate issue from open enrollment and must be treated as such.

*Data received via e-mail from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, December 2012


"Nearly everyone who contacted me is opposed…"

State Senator and Senate Education Committee member Kathleen Vinehout is one of the first Wisconsin legislators to make it clear publicly — even if the intention to reintroduce special needs vouchers has not been formally announced, it is widely expected that it is part of the plans for the new year. In reflecting on the year gone by in a blogpost at Uppity Wisconsin (“Looking Back, Looking Forward“) Sen. Vinehout had this to say about special needs vouchers:

The financial health of our schools is on minds of many constituents. Nearly everyone who contacted me about education is concerned about money for local schools and opposed to an expansion of the charter and voucher programs, especially the expansion of vouchers to special education students.

The special education voucher program and the independent charter school expansion will likely reappear before the Education Committee of which I am a member. The Governor may also add an expansion of the voucher program in the state budget.

Soon, I will meet with representatives from the Governor’s office and continue to meet with other Legislators as we work to find some common ground on school finance reform.

As I work to change the school funding formula to better assist our schools, I will also play defense to stop new proposals that syphon off dollars that should go to our already struggling schools.

Let’s continue to let Sen. Vinehout and all our state legislators know: special needs vouchers are wrong for our students and wrong for Wisconsin. And thank you, Sen. Vinehout, for your leadership on this!


Welcome to the Stop Special Needs Vouchers blog-community! This group of Wisconsin families is committed to promoting quality public-school choices for all students, and stopping harmful special needs vouchers. Special needs vouchers were proposed and defeated in Wisconsin in the past legislative session, but will be returning in the new year.  The time to learn more about the false promise of special needs vouchers is now!

Please visit our Who We Are page for a quick overview of what we’re all about, and our Voucher Information Links for background on special needs vouchers and open enrollment.  You can “like” our Facebook page (also linked in the sidebar) for regular updates, and follow this blog for more information and calls to action.

Join us in working together for all students in Wisconsin!
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Parent Quotes

“Our tax money should not be going to private schools that aren’t required to follow the IDEA, including the transition programs that were so vital for helping Jim prepare for life after high school.” — Katie from Neenah, mother to Jim

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