Special Needs Scholarship Program Gets Assembly Hearing

MacIver News Service | May 3, 2011

[Madison,  Wisc…] As Wisconsin weighs options for the expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and charter school legislation, another bill that aims to increase educational options for students received a hearing at the State Capitol Tuesday.

Students with special needs could be eligible for a new state-sponsored scholarship if a bill proposed by Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh) becomes law.

“This legislation is not an indictment of special education in public schools,” said Litjens.  “Rather, it acknowledges that parents know what school is best for their child—I hope no one would disagree with that—and this fact couldn’t be truer when it comes to parents of special needs children.”

Members of the Assembly Education Committee heard more than six hours of testimony regarding the creation of a Special Needs Scholarship for students in Wisconsin with exceptional needs in the classroom.

Advocates argue that parents should have the opportunity to send their children with special needs to the public or private school of their choice without the burden of a long and costly administrative and legal process.

Under Assembly Bill 110, a child with a disability may receive a scholarship to attend a public school located outside the pupil’s school district of residence, or a private school, if all of the following conditions are met:

1. The school has notified the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) of its intent to participate in the program and the child has been accepted by the school.

2. If the school is a private school, it is approved as a private school by DPI or is accredited.

3. An individualized education program (IEP) has been completed for the child.

4. The child attended a public school, or did not attend school in this state, in the previous school year.

However, the bill was met with skepticism from various members of the educational establishment; most significantly from the committee chairman.

State Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake) was among the first to question Litjens and fellow bill author Senator Leah Vukmir, who were grilled for 90 minutes at the beginning of the day-long hearing.

Students, who are designated in public schools by the presence of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that dictates the goals and methods of a specialized slate of teaching, would be eligible to attend private schools through state-funded scholarships.

Opponents, such as Jeffery Spitzer-Resnick of Disability Rights Wisconsin, suggested that the plan would be costly for Wisconsin taxpayers. Vukmir and Litjens, however, testified that the program would be neutral to taxpayers and potentially even create savings at a statewide level.

A long list of participants delivered hours of testimony, with the bulk of accounts registering in favor of a potential special needs scholarship program.  Local private school administrators came out to support the plan, relaying accounts of how their institutions have tailored special education programs to fit specific students and provide comprehensive levels of support for parents.

Parents of these students were mostly in favor as well, suggesting that while public schools do provide many good options for their children, private schools often provide additional supplemental services that should be open to all students.

Expanded choice, some parents argued, would also reduce the amount of litigation and due process claims that often accompany a potentially tenuous special education process in public schools.

Opponents, led by Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Madison) did not share these viewpoints, worrying that a voucher program would drain public schools of resources, segregate special education students by pulling them from traditional schools, and potentially hurt uninformed parents who may not be able to make the best decisions for their children.

Testimony from entities ranging from the Department of Public Instruction to a couple of developmentally disabled advocates in Wisconsin opposed the potential scholarship program.

Some of the most compelling testimony came from a person with no children of his own. Representative Jason Fields made a passionate appeal to the Committee to focus on serving students rather than just examining the fiscal implications of the bill. Special needs children need to be viewed as just that, Fields argued, rather than commodities within a system. The creation of a scholarship program would further the mission of giving these students the best possible chance to succeed.

Madison resident Melissa Kasperski, who’s daughter, Brittney, has Spina Bifida, succinctly summarized the parents’ perspective.

“Every parent wants what’s best for their children–AB 110 would give us the ability to make the best possible decisions for Brittney,” she said.

No vote was taken on the proposal Tuesday, but could vote on the proposal later this month.