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Joint Finance Committee Delays Vote on Special Needs Vouchers

Ann-Elise Henzl

The Joint Committee on Finance was expected to vote on the school vouchers on Wednesday; however, lawmakers adjourned without taking action on the item.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal would let children with special needs use about $14,000 in taxpayer funding to attend private or charter schools. The amount is more than twice that for school choice participants. The governor’s proposal has created a stir.

Aaron Krause has already told committee members he favors special needs vouchers. He testified last month when the panel held a public hearing. Krause is a 15-year-old from Wauwatosa. He has autism, high-functioning Asperger’s, and stress-induced psychosis. He says he used to attend a public school, but it was not a good fit.

“There were a lot of loud noises, and loud noises can irritate me. Plus the schoolwork wasn’t really right for me -- the specific type of school work. Not to mention classes were too long,” Krause says.

When Aaron grew violent and disruptive, his mother enrolled him in a small, private school. It specializes in educating children with special needs. Now, the aspiring Eagle Scout says he’s thriving.

“I get stuff done faster. I’m more than halfway done with next year’s work in science,” Krause says.

Aaron’s family pays his tuition.

Dani Rossa wishes she could afford private school for her daughters. They’re 11 and eight years old. Both are on the autism spectrum and attend Milwaukee Public Schools. Rossa says her girls have made little progress, despite the Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, the school staff helped design.

“We’re desperate, and there are a lot families out there like us. Public school works great for some families and this isn’t going to affect them. But it’s the people like us that have kind of found this dead end, that we really need this option,” Rossa says.

Children with special needs can participate in Wisconsin’s existing school choice program. But the Department of Public Instruction says many don’t, because voucher schools are not required to offer special programming. 

Some can’t afford it.

St. Coletta’s has reached capacity. The small private school for students with special needs is tucked into St. Sebastian’s elementary school on Milwaukee’s west side. Bill Koehn is administrator.

“The additional funding that could come through for special needs kids would allow us to expand to include other ancillary services that we cannot offer right now -- speech therapy, occupational therapy, all of these additional services that our students need, but we can’t afford it right now,” Koehn says.

While advocates insist special needs vouchers would bolster alternatives to the public system, Lisa Pugh warns parents. She works with the group Disability Rights Wisconsin. Pugh says families opting for the vouchers would check their legal rights at the door.

“Parents of children with disabilities have rights to an IEP, rights to qualified special education staff, many rights that were hard fought, that serve students with disabilities in their public schools, and these rights would not be available to families in private schools,” Pugh says.

Others worry about the impact special needs vouchers could have on the public school system. It is required to provide an appropriate education for all students.

Terri Hart-Ellis says the expansion could drain money from services the Whitefish Bay system provides her daughter, Addie.

“It’s tempting to think that just it’s just a per-pupil amount and that the money that is spent on that child can just be packaged up neatly and be sent along with them, but it doesn’t work like that. When the money leaves the special ed program it actually does result in reduced resources and reduced staffing,” Hart-Ellis says.

Hart-Ellis says her daughter has a cognitive disability, and is non-verbal. She uses a device that looks like an iPad to communicate. Addie plops down on her living room floor, with the device in one hand, and a tablet computer in the other. She uses one to watch her favorite movie – Napoleon Dynamite -- while touching the other to talk about her favorite subject.

Credit Terri Hart-Ellis
Addie, her parents and her older sister, participating recently in a Whitefish Bay community run. The family is pleased with Addie's public school education, and worries the special needs vouchers would drain resources from her school

“I like math because I am good at it, I’m the fastest on the calculator,” Addie says.

Addie’s mother says her nine-year-old is able to keep up with the third grade curriculum because of the team working with her.

“It is very collaborative, the expectations are very high for her, and she has risen to meet them,” Hart-Ellis says.

Hart-Ellis says she hopes those fighting the voucher expansion will focus next on improving special education statewide.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.