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Sen. Leah Vukmir: “Good Riddance” to Rights and Protections for Students with Disabilities

Note: Stop Special Needs Vouchers submitted this piece to the Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee) in response to a remarkably condescending opinion piece by State Senator Leah Vukmir, called “School Choice is Working for Wisconsin Students.” The Journal Sentinel declined to acknowledge or publish.

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When it comes to rights and protections for students with disabilities, State Senator Leah Vukmir has two words: “Good riddance.”

Good riddance, she declares in a 10/31 opinion piece, to education as we know it in Wisconsin.

As parents of students with disabilities, education as we know it in Wisconsin is made possible for our children by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Thanks to the IDEA, our kids have the right to a free appropriate public education, with a legally-enforceable Individualized Education Plan, in our neighborhood schools where the doors must be open to all students regardless of disability. Our nation has declared via the IDEA that students with disabilities deserve rights and protections within our system of taxpayer-funded education.

Wisconsin’s voucher programs as championed by Sen. Vukmir, however, have created an alternate reality in which students with disabilities are deemed to be deserving of no such thing.

We and other Wisconsin parents have pointed out for years that students with disabilities give up their IDEA rights and protections the moment they accept a voucher. Voucher students enter a system in which schools are not legally obligated to meet their needs, nor are voucher schools required to have special educators on staff. Unlike public schools, voucher schools need not provide transition services before students graduate. They can expel or “counsel out” students they find too challenging to educate, and the public schools must take the rejected students back while the funding lags behind.

All these things have been true of Wisconsin’s voucher system for decades, but are even more stark in the new special needs voucher program. The special needs voucher scheme failed repeatedly in the legislature in the face of opposition from parents like us, together with unanimous opposition from disability organizations statewide. Since the program couldn’t pass on its own merits, it was stealthily inserted into the 2015-17 state budget on a midnight vote without a public hearing. The much-hyped demand, however, failed to materialize: out of over 400 available special needs voucher seats, only 202 students signed up, many of whom were already attending private schools.

It’s worth taking a look at the “special education profiles” of the special needs voucher schools. Only one of the 26 declares that they’re wheelchair accessible, while an entire chain of schools offers special education support only to students with Specific Learning Disability and speech and language impairments.

Meanwhile, in our public schools where the IDEA must be followed and the doors are open to even those with the most challenging of needs, the percentage-share of state support for special education has been steadily eroding, such that local districts are scrambling to cover the difference. If there’s no increase in the upcoming state budget, special education categorical aid will have been frozen for a full decade. This lopsided pseudo-competition, with a big thumb on the voucher side of the scale, is the last thing our students with disabilities need. We need to properly fund our public schools and stop undermining them with voucher schemes that strip students with disabilities of the rights and protections that should be theirs in any taxpayer-funded school.

The students of Wisconsin deserve better. And the sooner we can stem this flood of voucher schemes, the better off our students with disabilities will be. That would, indeed, be good riddance.

Pamela DeLap (Oshkosh), Kevin Fech (Cudahy), Terri Hart-Ellis (Whitefish Bay), Amy Polsin (Lowell), Naomi Silver (River Falls), and Kelli Simpkins (Madison) are all members of the statewide grassroots group Stop Special Needs Vouchers.

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Parent Quotes

“No longstanding, statewide disability group has asked for these vouchers. In fact, these groups were not even consulted…” — Melissa from Beloit, mother to Rowenna

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