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Public Schools Question Special Education Funding Fairness As Voucher Program Expands

Emily Files
A volunteer brings a therapy dog to St. Coletta Day School on a regular basis for children to play with. The school serves about 30 students with cognitive disabilities. Most attend the school using taxpayer-funded special needs vouchers.

Is state special education funding in Wisconsin unfair? School districts from Eau Claire to Oak Creek say it is. They see inequity between public schools and a relatively new voucher program.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program is another chapter in Wisconsin’s storied school choice movement. It provides an approximate $12,000 scholarship — or voucher — for students with disabilities to attend private school. The state pays for the vouchers by decreasing aid to public school districts where the students live.

One school that has benefitted from the program is St. Coletta Day School on Milwaukee’s far west side.

“When we first became aware of the program, it was almost in disbelief,” said Principal Bill Koehn.

That’s because St. Coletta caters solely to students with cognitive disabilities. Before the special needs scholarships, families had to pay private tuition. Now, almost all of the school's 30 students use a special needs scholarship.

Koehn says the money has made a huge difference. It’s enabled the school to start a transition program for young adults ages 18-21.

“We’re able to implement some of these programs that we were just never able to do,” Koehn said. “It was a pipe dream and now it became a reality for us.”

One of the students attending St. Coletta on a special needs scholarship is 11-year-old Maddie, who's diagnosed with Autism and ADHD. Her mother, Kristi Haanstad, says Maddie was having problems in the public school she attended before. 

"She used to pretend she was sick multiple times per week," parent Kristi Haanstad said.

“She used to pretend she was sick multiple times per week,” Haanstad said. “She no longer pretends she’s sick to get out of school.”

Haanstad says she is pro-public schools. In fact, she’s a public school teacher. But she says they weren’t right — socially or academically — for Maddie. 

Many more parents like Haanstad are using special needs vouchers for private schools for the 2018-2019 school year.  

“Parents are excited about this,” said Carol Shires with School Choice Wisconsin. “The number of school participation has shot up.”

The number of schools taking part in the program has tripled since last school year — from 28 to more than 80. State education officials expect 700 students to participate this year, up from around 250 last school year. They anticipate the number of students using special needs vouchers to increase to 1,000 by the 2019-2020 school year. 

One reason for the increase is easier access. Legislators removed most of the barriers for students to participate beginning this year.

Now, the only requirement is that a student have an individualized education plan (IEP) from a public district. Whether the private school follows the IEP is up to the parent to monitor. Private schools are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

“The private school can throw that IEP out the window and do whatever they want,” said Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy.

"The private school can throw that IEP out the window and do whatever they want," said DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy.

In addition to the looser restrictions, legislators made more money available for special needs scholarships this year. On top of the $12,000 voucher payment, Wisconsin schools can ask for up to about $6,000 more per student. If that isn’t enough, they can apply for the state to cover 90 percent of additional costs.

It’s uncertain whether private schools will take advantage of the 90 percent reimbursement. Bill Koehn says St. Coletta will not because the paperwork isn’t worth the payoff.

Still, public schools don’t have the same funding options.

“This is just a glaring example of the incredible inequities in funding,” said Shorewood school board member Pablo Muirhead.

Shorewood is one of eight districts across the state that have written resolutions asking for fair special education funding. The others are Eau Claire, Hartland Lakeside, Kettle Moraine, Oak Creek-Franklin, Sun Prairie, West Allis-West Milwaukee, and Whitefish Bay. Milwaukee will likely consider a similar resolution later this year, according to officials.

“[We are] calling for our elected leaders to increase funding to what they are willing to give private school students,” Muirhead said.

Muirhead and other public school leaders have had enough of watching funding grow for special needs vouchers, while money stays static for special education in public schools. For a decade, state reimbursement for regular special education expenses has remained flat. It now covers about 26 percent of districts’ special education costs.

That could change. State Superintendent and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers is proposing a dramatic increase. He wants to raise the reimbursement rate from 26 to 60 percent in the 2019-2021 state budget

DPI's McCarthy says the special needs voucher program provides a "clear counterexample" to make the case for more special education funding for public schools.

Back at St. Coletta, parent Kristi Haanstad says her daughter’s issues at public school were probably affected by limited resources.

“I don’t think it was for lack of effort on any individual teacher’s part,” Haanstad said. “It’s the system and the lack of, I would say, resources, the lack of funding.”

That’s something both sides agree on — more funding for special education in public schools would be a positive step for children with disabilities in Wisconsin.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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