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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS Faced Financial Sanctions If It Didn’t Reopen For More Special Needs Students

Milwaukee Public Schools' central office building.
Milwaukee Public Schools' central office building.

Milwaukee Public Schools is planning to reopen for students beginning next Wednesday. It’s one of the last districts in the state to resume in-person teaching.

Looming over MPS’s decision to reopen was the threat of financial sanctions from the state Department of Public Instruction. DPI told MPS in early March that it needed to serve more students with disabilities in-person or risk losing money.

Kate Campbell’s adopted 10-year-old son has an emotional behavioral disability that’s a result of trauma early in his life. During a normal school year at Garland Elementary, he’s in a special education classroom with two teachers and a one-on-one aide.

"It’s a lot of teaching him how to interact with people, a lot of teaching him how to deal with frustration," Campbell says. "And it’s not really possible to do that over a computer. Especially when the computer is the thing that’s making him mad."

Campbell says virtual learning doesn’t work for her son. She says she’s spent this school year fighting with MPS to get him the services he’s legally entitled to through his individualized education plan, or IEP.

"It’s been a very disappointing — mostly they just ignore me," Campbell says. "Sometimes I don’t get responses to emails. No one’s calling to check in and see how we’re doing. It’s almost like we’re a lost cause to them."

It’s not just Campbell who feels MPS isn’t doing enough for students with disabilities. The state Department of Public Instruction has repeatedly told MPS that it’s not meeting its obligation to provide a free, appropriate public education for children with special needs.

MPS capitulated to DPI pressure in February. The district offered about 300 students with IEPs the option for in-person learning two half-days per week at three school sites. MPS says 157 students took the district up on the offer.

>>As Some MPS Special Education Students Return To Schools, Parents Express Frustration With The Plan

MPS spokesman Earl Arms says the 300 student number was a “starting point” to return families seeking in-person education.

Monica Murphy, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, says it wasn’t enough. Disability Rights Wisconsin has been helping Kate Campbell and other MPS families advocate for their children.

"MPS is serving 127 kids in-person two half days a week. There are close to 15,000 kids with disabilities in MPS," Murphy says. "I am sure there are more than 127 of them having difficulty learning virtually." (Murphy is basing the 127 number on DPI's letter to MPS dated March 3.)

DPI leaders felt the same way. In early March, Assistant State Superintendent Barbara Van Haren sent a letter to MPS saying the “one-size-fits-all” program was not sufficient.

"Given the number of students with disabilities enrolled in MPS, those currently served fall short of what the DPI would anticipate," Van Haren wrote. "MPS appears to be offering a one-size-fits-all program to students with disabilities requiring in-person services. This program is not sufficient to meet the unique needs of individual students or the provision of FAPE (a free, appropriate public education.)"

Van Haren told MPS to provide in-person services to all students whose IEPs require them or else risk losing state funding.

"I think it’s spot-on," says Murphy. "I wish it was even stronger. I know DPI is frustrated, we are certainly frustrated, with the lack of urgency and the minimal, minimal offerings of in-person services for kids with disabilities up to this point."

DPI spokesman Chris Bucher says MPS is the only district that the agency has reprimanded in this way.

A few weeks after the March DPI order, the MPS Board voted to phase in face-to-face learning beginning April 14.

When asked what role the DPI order played in MPS’s decision, spokesman Earl Arms did not directly answer but said the administration has been in “continuous planning” for an in-person return.

School board president Larry Miller did not return requests for an interview.

Bucher told WUWM that DPI does not plan to withhold funding from MPS.

Ultimately, more than a year after schools closed, students with disabilities like Kate Campbell’s fourth grader will have the opportunity to return in-person. But she says her trust in MPS will be hard to rebuild.

"Trying to fight the district for what he needs and deserves has taken an emotional toll on me," Campbell says. "And the relationship I had with the school has really been ruptured at this point. And I don’t know how or if they’re going to be willing to repair that."

Murphy, the disability rights attorney, says students with IEPs are entitled to compensatory services once they’re back in school — that means extra services to help make up for academic and or behavioral progress that was lost during virtual school.

Arms says MPS will offer five days per week of in-person education for all students with IEPs, including high schoolers in grades nine through 11 — many of whom appeared to be left out of the return plan. Students without IEPs have the option to return in-person four days per week, with virtual learning on Wednesdays. MPS says family surveys show 59% of students plan to return.

Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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