WPRI Surveys Private Schools, Concludes “Wisconsin is Failing to Help Students with Disabilities”

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The conservative think-tank Wisconsin Public Research Institute (WPRI) has issued a report on the failings of education in Wisconsin, just days before Governor Walker is slated to release his 2013/2015 state budget proposal.

You might expect, given that the governor has been talking for months about using the budget to expand Milwaukee-like voucher programs into communities that don’t want them, that WPRI’s priority immediately before the budget release would involve casting aspersions on the public schools in those communities.

Instead, however, they did a survey of private schools in Wisconsin.  And the result of that survey is a report called “How Wisconsin is Failing to Help Students with Disabilities.”

How fascinating to hear WPRI imply that private schools in Wisconsin are not meeting the needs of students with disabilities!

Equally fascinating is their argument.

It may not be well known, but private schools actually do get some funding from the public school system to assist in educating students with disabilities.  The public schools have to share part of their federal special-education funding, proportional to what percentage of students with disabilities in the district are in the private schools.

WPRI would like private schools to have more of those tax dollars, either through identifying more children as having disabilities, or by bringing in more such kids with public funding attached.

And, when you ask private school administrators questions that lead in those directions, they agree:

Asked, “Are there children in your school who, in your estimation, would be considered disabled if they attended a public school but are not considered disabled at your school?” 40 percent of private school administrators said yes and another 25 percent said probably.

Asked, “Would your school accept more children with disabilities if you had more money or resources to educate them?” 51 percent responded yes and another 33 percent said probably.

Alas for the private schools of Wisconsin, and the failure to educate the students with disabilities therein.  If only they had more public funding!

It’s interesting.  You might also hear the public schools of Wisconsin tell you that they could better educate students with disabilities if they only had more funding.  (They won’t tell you that they’d accept more such children, because they’re already required to educate all children in their district regardless of disability.)

Unfortunately, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that requires public schools to provide a free appropriate education — with all the rights and protections that entails — to students with disabilities in their district, has been sadly underfunded at both the federal and state level since its inception, leaving the districts to pick up the balance.

IDEA also does not require the private schools to abide by the same requirements and protections as the private schools.

For example, while private schools are not supposed to write admissions policies that say “we do not take students with disabilities,” they can keep out the higher-needs students via academic or behavior standards.  Sometimes private schools won’t even take students with more significant disabilities when parents offer to pay the full cost of aides and therapists themselves, as related by Tari from Madison:

I met with one of the private schools, and I had given them, in advance, my son’s preschool IEP. When they met with me, there were four or five people who immediately told me they would not be able to meet his needs. I offered that my husband and I would pay out of our pocket for a full time aide and that we would finance all of his needs for occupational therapy, speech/language, and all other needs. The private school said, “No thank you.”

Public schools don’t get to pick and choose like that.  When your tax dollars go to Wisconsin public schools, you know you’re paying to educate everyone.

In fact, it’s quite clear from the WPRI report what kind of students with disabilities the private schools would prefer to recruit:

…many respondents said they are best able to assist children with learning disabilities in areas such as speech or reading, dyslexia and some physical issues including hearing impairments.

So how does WPRI think that private schools could best get a better whack at the public money?  They don’t recommend directly, but they do drop some broad hints — right at the beginning of the report, in the “WPRI Notes,” in fact.

A quiet little bill wound its way through the halls of the state Capitol last session and even garnered enough support to pass in the Assembly.  However, it did not pass in the Senate, and so it died.

That “quiet little bill” actually proposed a major statewide education policy change, in the form of a voucher program for students with disabilities, dubbed The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, with an eerily similar text to an ALEC model bill of the same name.  I first wrote about it at Daily Kos in May 2011:  Piratizing Special Education in Wisconsin: AB110.  Parents and educators pointed out loudly and clearly: special needs vouchers would be risky for the students who took them, because they came without the IDEA rights and protections.  And they’d also be terrible news for the students with more challenging disabilities who remained in the public schools, losing shared resources as the public dollars flowed away into private coffers.

Ever since that special needs voucher bill failed to pass the state Senate, and even more since the Republicans regained the Senate majority in November 2012, we’ve been hearing rumbles that it was coming back as a priority in 2013.  Even while school-privatization lobbyist Scott Jensen played coy in a January interview, the writing was on the wall.  A group of concerned parents of children with disabilities began to organize into a statewide network called Stop Special Needs Vouchers, to prepare for the bill’s potential re-introduction.

Or…. might the legislation possibly appear in the governor’s budget, where it wouldn’t even get a separate public hearing?

The latter suspicion became an immediate threat just a week ago, when the misleadingly-named deep-pocketed national school privatization lobby American Federation for Children began soliciting disability organizations in Wisconsin.  We want to help you, they said.  All you need to do is send a letter at this handy-dandy letter generator to Governor Walker, and tell him to put a special needs scholarship program into the budget!

Their letter included this stunning whopper:

Special needs scholarship programs in other states have proven to be very accountable, attracting parental satisfaction rates higher than 90 percent.

I’m sure the public schools will be delighted to hear that they don’t need to do any of those pesky standardized tests anymore, and that parental satisfaction scores are the only measure that needs to be applied from now on!

Fortunately, Stop Special Needs Vouchers was ready and willing to spring into action.  First step, a letter generator with the opposite message: Governor Walker, these vouchers are harmful and no established disability organization in Wisconsin has asked for them.  Do NOT put them in the budget.

ACTION STEP FOR YOU, THE READER, RIGHT NOW:  Please take just a minute and send a message to Governor Walker and your state legislators, and tell them that special needs vouchers do NOT belong in the budget!  (It’ll open in a new window, so you can send  your message and come right back.)

Next step, it’s time to spread the message far and wide.  Mark your calendars for a press event at the Capitol in Madison this Monday!

PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES TRAVEL TO MADISON
TO TELL THE GOVERNOR:
SPECIAL NEEDS SCHOLARSHIPS ARE BAD NEWS FOR OUR KIDS!

When: February 18, 2:30 PM
Where: State Capitol, Room 330 SW; Madison, WI
Who: Parents of Children with Disabilities and Students from throughout Wisconsin (Other Quality Education Advocates are also welcome to attend.)

Parents and children with disabilities from across Wisconsin will gather in the Capitol on Monday, February 18 to tell Governor Scott Walker to keep special needs vouchers for students with disabilities OUT of his budget proposal.

The Governor will deliver his budget address on February 20.  Many believe he is being pressured by out-of-state lobbyists to include a special needs scholarship proposal, which could be harmful to students with disabilities and local school districts. Specifically, families are concerned that voucher funding mechanisms would harm their children in the public schools by draining monies from their local districts.  In addition, parents who use the vouchers would lose essential rights in private schools where basic safety protections are not in place and quality of education is not guaranteed.

At the family-organized February 18 Capitol event, parents from around Wisconsin will share their stories, introduce their children with disabilities and discuss their concerns about placing a special needs voucher proposal in the budget. Following the press event, parents and children with disabilities will deliver a message directly to the Governor’s office.

For more background on concerns about special needs vouchers in Wisconsin, see: http://tinyurl.com/Vouchers2013

The WPRI report, in both its contents and timing, makes the message even more urgent.  Stop Special Needs Vouchers is hoping for a big turnout on Monday.  If you’re anywhere in the area, please come and swell the crowd!

 Cross-posted from Daily Kos.

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AnnieJo

I wear many hats: mom, librarian, constituent, activist, autism advocate, singer, writer, gardener, voracious reader. I've lived in Madison since 1998, and have been blogging the Wisconsin Uprising at Daily Kos since February 11, 2011 -- the very day that Scott Walker "dropped the bomb." 

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