MADISON — The
impromptu creation of a special needs voucher program early
Wednesday morning caught disability rights advocates off guard,
while those who supported the measure hailed the program as giving
parents another option for educating their kids.
Joint Finance Committee voted to create the program at 1:30 a.m.
Wednesday after unveiling the idea just five hours earlier. The
program would function like open enrollment for public schools,
with public dollars following each disabled student who leaves the
district for a private school. The $12,000 voucher would be
available only to special needs students whose applications to
open enroll to another public school are denied and who have
individualized education plans in place.
proposal has been rejected several times in the Legislature in
recent years. By comparison, all other students who receive
vouchers to attend private schools would cost public school
districts $7,210 for elementary students and $7,856 for those in
advocate groups responded to the news Wednesday morning with
anger, saying they weren't consulted. The program wasn't part of
Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget.
very much like a sneak attack," spokeswoman for the group
Stop Special Needs Vouchers Terri Hart-Ellis said. "It
happened literally under the cover of night."
supporters contend the program would provide more options for
disabled students and their families.
children and families are trapped. Their public school has failed
them, and their chance of open enrollment has been taken
away," said Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, the program's
co-author. "We are giving families hope that their children
can finally get the education they deserve."
Opponents say the
program would drain funds from public schools and students in
private voucher schools wouldn't receive the same legal
protections they are guaranteed in public schools.
daughter Addie, 11, has a cognitive disorder that prevents her
from speaking. Instead Addie uses sign language and an iPad app to
communicate. While her daughter has been academically involved
each year in her classes in school in Whitefish Bay, Hart-Ellis
worries the funding cuts to public schools could affect her public
school education. She said if public school funds are depleted her
daughter could be switched into a separate class.
less to segregate students with cognitive disorders, period,"
Hart-Ellis said. "And that's what I'm scared of."
co-chair of Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability
Organizations, said she had received many calls from families who
were shocked by the action. She said most private schools aren't
equipped to handle students with the most significant
developmental disabilities. And private schools would not face the
same federal oversight as public schools in putting together
curriculums and documenting students' development, she said.
consequences if the students don't make progress," she said.
Dani Rossa said
she withdrew her two daughters Camryn, 14, and Chloe, 10, from a
Milwaukee public school two years ago because she was unhappy with
the education they were getting there. Both girls are on the
autism spectrum, she said, and weren't meeting the standards laid
out in their individualized education plans.
"I just got
to the point where I felt like I couldn't risk that every
year," Rossa said. "It just felt like a gamble to
Rossa said since
switching her daughters to a private school she has seen
improvement, but the financial toll has been hard on her family.
savings you have in your pot for a rainy day, that's all earmarked
for education," Rossa said. "Everything we don't have to
do gets cut."
Rossa said she
has worried each year about how long she could afford Camryn and
Chloe's private schooling. But with the new voucher program those
worries could shrink, she said.