DPI Used Special Education Federal Funding to Pay for White Privilege Conference Registrations

Did Federal Funds Help Pay for a Conference Attacking the Tea Party?

June 19, 2014

[Madison, Wisc…] An investigation by the MacIver Institute has discovered Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) used federal funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to cover the almost $2,000 cost of staff members’ attendance at the national White Privilege Conference (WPC) held in Madison in late March.

Records from DPI obtained through an open records request show that it paid for eight staff members to attend the conference.

IDEA Funds used pull quote.png“We did register eight staff,” Sherri Honaker, DPI Special Education Office Operations Associate, said in an email to a colleague. “The registrations were paid for with IDEA Discretionary funds.”

The IDEA website does not specifically state what discretionary funds may be used for. MacIver emailed the Department of Education (DOE) to determine if these funds could be used to attend the WPC but did not receive a response.

The federal DOE’s website explicitly states, however, that IDEA is meant to help children with disabilities and provide funding for programs related to special education.

“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation,” the website reads. “IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.”

In fiscal year 2014, IDEA had a total budget of about $12.5 billion.

President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law in 1990 to mandate that all public schools provide education for children with special needs and provide funding to states for special education.

The IDEA law and its federal funding are broken down into three general sections: Title I, Title II and Title III. Within the each section, there are several subsections.

Part B provides federal funding to states for special education and related services for children and youth ages three to 21 years old. Part C provides similar funding for infants and toddlers through age two.

Part D provides funding for professional development. According to the federal website, these funds are meant to help teachers and other academic leaders better prepare for the challenges associated with special education.

The MacIver Institute could not find any mention of “White Privilege” on the IDEA website. But, the list of acceptable uses of this professional development funding has been expanded over the years, most recently in 2004.

DPI records obtained by MacIver show its Special Education department paid WPC $1,840 for eight staff members to attend the conference.

An internal email between DPI staff defended the use of IDEA funding to pay for the WPC registrations after Chris Rickert, reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, sent a request to DPI inquiring about the reasons staff would attend the conference.

“I’m interested in how what they learn will help them in their jobs,” Rickert said in an email on March 24th.

Multiple DPI employees discussed how they would respond to Rickert in the email chain obtained by MacIver. One staffer, Terri Ehiorobo, drafted a lengthy response supporting the use of IDEA funding.

“The Individual[s] with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires States and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to take steps to address disproportionate representation of racial/ethnic groups in special education,” Ehiorobo wrote in the internal email. “The WPC provides current research on issues and topics related to some of the root causes around racial disproportionality [sic].”

MacIver previously reported on the WPC, including first-hand accounts of the workshops offered and some of the controversial subject matter covered during the four-day conference. It seems the conference was more radical than DPI wanted to admit.

WPC - fight for equity.pngDuring one breakout session, facilitator Kim Radersma, who is a former teacher, called teaching “a political act.” She made it clear that educators who are not willing to teach social justice or be political have no place in the classroom.

“If you don’t want to work for equity, get the f**k out of education,” Radersma said. “If you are not serious about being an agent of change that helps stifle the oppressive systems, go find another job. Because you are a political figure.”

Leonard Zeskind led a second workshop that MacIver attended, which was centered on attacking the Tea Party. “There has been a longitudinal study that finds the longer you are in the Tea Party, the more racist you become,” Zeskind said to the group.

DPI was not the only educational organization to use federal funding to attend the White Privilege Conference. Monona Grove School District (MGSD), located just outside of Madison, sent 49 educators to the conference.

Monona Grove WPC Tweet.pngMGSD Superintendent Daniel Olson told the MacIver Institute that similar federal funds were used to pay for the teachers to attend.

“The total cost for registration fees was $10,276,” Olson said in an email. “The majority of the cost was covered by our federal flow-through grant.”

In a later email, Olson said the school district used federal grants, but the superintendent was unsure of the funding source.

“Like most school districts, we fund professional development activities using IDEA Flow-through, CEIS or Title II grants,” Olson said. “I don’t know which of these grants may have been used for this particular conference.”

Coordinated Early Intervening Services (CEIS) is another part of IDEA, but it is not directly aimed at special education. Instead CEIS focuses on helping students “who are not currently identified as needing special education or related services, but who need additional academic and behavioral supports to succeed in a general education environment.”

Olson also told MacIver that substitute teachers had to be hired to cover the absence of some of the teachers attending the WPC.

MacIver followed up with Olson by email to determine the exact source of the federal funds used and the total cost to hire substitute teachers but has yet to receive a response.

The MacIver Institute has reached out to several other school districts to see how many other teachers and school employees attended the conference at the taxpayers’ expense and will continue to provide updates on the total amount taxpayers spent on the 15th annual national White Privilege Conference.

Check back often for updates as they are available.