Special Needs Scholarship Program Nears Critical Votes This Week

This week, state legislators will work towards passing a bill that would improve educational options for special needs students across Wisconsin. However, a turbulent political climate and a resurgent education establishment could derail legislation that empowers parents before it can be voted in to law.

Assembly Bill 110 would give students with special needs state-funded scholarships to attend the school of their choice. These students must first have a public school background (or be a part of the Milwaukee or Racine Parental Choice Programs) and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to determine the severity of their handicap and what the best course of action to educate the child should be. Parents would then have the option to enroll their child in the school of their choice based on where they think would be the best fit for their student.

Parents and the state would monitor these students to hold private schools accountable for their IEP service. If a student is determined to no longer need a specialized IEP, that child would be ineligible for the program in the following year. More importantly, if a parent decides that their school is not fulfilling this IEP in accordance to the best interests of their child, they will have the freedom to find a new school that will.

Some in the educational establishment will surely howl about ‘lost dollars’ that follow the students whose parents decide another educational option suits them best, but the bill’s proponents are actually acting upon the oft-repeated political talking point of putting the kids first.

The bill is expected to get through the Assembly early this week with limited bipartisan support. The outlook is less optimistic in the Senate, where concerns loom over whether or not the legislation can generate the votes needed for passage. If the bill gets through both chambers, it is expected to be signed into law by Governor Scott Walker.

The bill presents the state with an opportunity to empower some of the hardest-working parents in the state. Families of students with disabilities often have to go above and beyond to figure out the best course of education and to ensure that schools are following that plan to the best of their abilities. This bill would give more freedom to these families and create greater options for the students that need them the most.

While Wisconsin’s public schools have some of the strongest special education programs in the state, the spectrum of special needs students is vastly broad. Expanding access to schools – not just private schools, but greater access to traditional public schools and charter schools as well – will not only clarify things for parents, but also improve the level of education that these students receive.

We’ve already discussed the parental satisfaction aspect of a scholarship program. Parents in Florida that had participated in the program after previously enrolling their children in public schools were overwhelmingly satisfied with the level of education and attention that their children received at their new schools. Similar levels of success have been seen in other states with special needs school choice programs as well, including Utah, Arizona, and Ohio.

Special needs scholarships would give students and families a greater choice when it comes to finding the education that fits them best. This week will tell whether or not Wisconsin will embrace freedom and opportunity for some of its most hard-working and attentive parents.