Presented April 18, 2013, at a Community Conversation on Special Needs Vouchers in Neenah, WI
Good evening, my name is Pam DeLap from Oshkosh and I am the proud mother of 3 children. 2 of my children are in the Oshkosh Public Schools, my daughter Emily is getting ready to graduate from West and my son Ben is in 6th grade. When Ben entered school, our family life changed in a way we never would have imagined. My son’s world was like a shaken snow globe. He had to learn and navigate this world without the skills most of us in this room naturally picked up through early childhood interactions.
Ben unskillfully made it through the first grade, and after many evaluations he was diagnosed with Autism. This developmental difference can be challenging to identify because it doesn’t come with any physical signs of disability. People still don’t always see it right away in Ben, because he has some significant strengths that will many times confuse his social interactions with others. Throughout the last 6 years, we have had some great school experiences, but we have also experienced some real heartache that created some trust issues that we continue to try and overcome. We have had some of the best of the best teaching staff, teachers who simply get it that each student is an individual and each has great potential. In his public school, Ben has always had speech and language professionals who can pinpoint Ben’s needs and who have been extremely successful in teaching him necessary social skills. These specific trained individuals are critical for the futures of our children with autism, they are giving them the tools they need to be participating members of society.
As I mentioned, we have had some hard school years, and at one point we were extremely frustrated and decided to research other opportunities for Ben. I made some calls and asked some questions of other schools, but as soon as the private school heard “autism”, the welcoming tone ended and I was quickly told unfortunately they could not accommodate those needs. I didn’t even have a chance to talk about Ben as an individual.
When Governor Walker presented the budget with the special needs vouchers included, I felt very compelled to learn more about them because of our school experiences. However, when I did learn more I became very concerned about the impact these vouchers have on our public schools and community as a whole. My experience demonstrates that private schools do indeed pick and choose who they will accept, and I have heard similar stories from other Wisconsin parents. It is clear that special needs vouchers would go primarily to the students with the fewest actual needs, draining those students and their funding from the public schools. Meanwhile, students like my son who have more significant needs would remain in public school, even while part of the shared funding for his speech therapists could go out the door. The possibility that our community tax dollars in these vouchers could be creating a system that would enable this type of discrimination is simply shameful!
My last comments are specifically related to our students’ rights under state and federal special education law. There are protections that this state has found to be necessary to keep our kids safe like the seclusion and restraint bill. Children have been killed and seriously injured by the harmful use of unregulated seclusion and restraint. Ben and I actively advocated for the seclusion and restraint bill in Madison that passed unanimously – both chambers, both parties — and was signed by Governor Walker in March 2012. However, the protections only apply to public schools, not to private schools and their voucher students. In public school, Ben has legally-enforceable rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one of the strongest special education laws in the world. Once again private schools are not subject to this law, and voucher students lose those rights and protections.
The special needs vouchers are being promoted as school choice, giving parents the right to choose, but it is neither a fair choice nor a safe choice for students with disabilities. The safety and well being of students with disabilities is at risk, the future of public education is at risk. I am here to say I don’t support these vouchers as presented and I would certainly not trade Benjamin’s safety for school choice. The special needs vouchers must be removed from the state budget.