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Take Special Needs Vouchers Out of the Budget!

Take Special Needs Vouchers Out of the Budget!

As parents of students with disabilities, we have fought for years to protect robust public education for children across Wisconsin. We repeatedly have raised our voices to defeat the harmful special needs voucher bills that keep surfacing in Madison, pushed by big money from out of state.

Early in the morning of May 20, however, the Joint Finance Committee told us — figuratively speaking — to sit down and shut up.

With no opportunity for public input or debate whatsoever, and not even a hint that it was coming, the majority party members of the budget-writing committee suddenly voted special needs vouchers into the state budget. There was much self-congratulation before the vote about how important it is to “trust the parents” in matters of education.

If they had trusted us to testify, we could have told them exactly why parents like us, not to mention every disability advocacy organization in the state, oppose their special needs voucher proposals.

Private voucher schools are not required to educate students with special needs, as the public schools are. They need not have special educators on staff, nor are they required to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which establishes our children’s rights to a free appropriate public education with a legally binding Individualized Education Plan.

Voucher schools 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. We don’t know how many students with disabilities have even been allowed into voucher schools, because the schools haven’t been required to reveal how many such students are enrolled.

Yet, with all of these dodges in place, voucher schools in Milwaukee have had a long track record of failing to do any better than the Milwaukee Public Schools. Instead, we have scandals such as LifeSkills Academy, and the dozens of Milwaukee students who were abandoned when the academy’s leaders fled Wisconsin for Florida in the middle of the night. Incidentally, the new LifeSkills Academy in Daytona Beach is still open, relying now on Florida’s special needs voucher funding.

Meanwhile, voucher schools and the voucher lobby are very skilled at marketing. We’ve heard the pitches and seen the glossy brochures. There’s personal experience in our group of being taken in by what the voucher schools promised, until our children actually attended and discovered sad differences between the sales job and the reality.

It’s abundantly clear that Wisconsin’s voucher programs, both present and proposed, leave families at the mercy of the operators while draining the public schools of much-needed funding.

Four decades ago, families such as ours advocated to secure children with disabilities the right to a solid public education in neighborhood schools where the doors must be open to all children regardless of disability. We strongly object to having our tax dollars suctioned out of public schools, where those hard-won rights apply, and spent to lure families into private schools where federal special education rights and protections disappear to be replaced by nothing more binding than a warning of “buyer, beware!”

Our children deserve better. Wisconsin deserves better.

We call on the Legislature to walk away from the voucher lobby sales job. Take the special needs vouchers out of the state budget.

From Pamela DeLap (Oshkosh), Terri Hart-Ellis (Whitefish Bay), Amy Polsin (Lowell), Naomi Silver (River Falls), Kelli Simpkins (Madison) and Lennise Vickers (Milwaukee). All are members of Stop Special Needs Vouchers.

Appeared online in Madison’s CapTimes on June 16, and in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel on June 18.


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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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