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Lawmakers Take Another Stab at Special Needs Vouchers

School Desks

On Tuesday, lawmakers reintroduced legislation that would provide thousands of dollars in state funding to special needs students who want to leave public districts for private schools. Gov. Walker introduced the measure as part of his last budget, but it did not pass. While some say it’s a matter of choice, others are concerned about the potential impact on public schools.

The bill in question would allow special needs students to attend either private or charter schools using public dollars. Author Leah Vukmir says each individual voucher would total around $14,000.  She says some parents have found they have no other options if they want to move their children out of public school.

“Under the open enrollment program either the home district or the receiving district can deny an application for a special needs student due to cost or space. This led to the denial of over 42 percent of the applications just last year,” Vukmir says.

Vukmir estimates implementing the legislation would cost between $5 million and $10 million. Susan Giaimo backs the law. She has a 14 year-old son with autism. She says last school year she enrolled him in a private school after years of neglect and mistreatment in the public school system.

“Highly trained staff teach him and we receive regular reports on his progress and his problems. My husband and I are treated as equal members of his school team, and the teachers and staff take our concerns seriously. In short, my son is now receiving the quality education that he deserves, and that is his right under the law. But we are paying for this entirely out of our own funds, and I don’t know how long we can sustain this financially,” Giaimo says.

But not everyone agrees special needs vouchers are the way to go. Terri Hart-Ellis joined the group Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin when Walker introduced the idea last spring.

“We do need to improve special education across the board in this state, the way to do that is not to defund it through vouchers. It’s just, it’s not going to get better like that,” Hart-Ellis says.

Lisa Pugh of Disability Rights Wisconsin also spoke out against the proposal last spring. She says children using public funds at private schools would lose some legal protections:

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 wouldn’t be available to families in private schools

If the reintroduced bill makes it through the legislature, it would be in place for the 2014-2015 school year. Private Schools would either have to be accredited or approved by DPI.