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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


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.


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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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