RACINE — Parents of special needs students may soon have another option when it comes to educating their children. But whether or not they should take advantage of that option is up for debate.
The option is special education vouchers, as proposed in the state budget.
The possible vouchers have legislators, disability rights groups and school officials butting heads about what’s best for disabled kids and their parents. Disagreements persist about whether private voucher schools could cherry-pick less disabled students and whether they’d have to provide special education services at all.
So how would the vouchers really work for students and families? The Journal Times sets the record straight — but first a quick primer on the program basics.
How would the vouchers work?
A special education student in public school could take some or all of the money needed to educate them and use it to attend a private school, charter school or public school outside their home district, under the proposed budget.
This “Special Needs Scholarship” voucher program would be different from the voucher program that already operates in Racine and Milwaukee for low- to middle-income students because it would exclusively target special education students, who are underrepresented in the existing program.
The special education voucher would be funded by taking money from the general state aid allotment given to the child’s home district, according to Layla Merrifield, fiscal analyst with the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Schools would choose to participate in the voucher program and would determine how many special education spots to make available, the budget says.
Leaders of several local private schools said their programs are already at capacity and would be unable to accept special needs voucher students in the immediate future.
Could voucher schools pick which kids to admit?
The budget says no but what actually happens may be different.
If there are more school applicants than spots, acceptance would be
random with preference given only to kids with siblings already at the school, according to the budget.
“The way the (budget) is written, the school would have to accept the child,” said Brian Pleva, Wisconsin government affairs associate for the American Federation for Children, a national public policy nonprofit that favors school choice.
But in other states with similar voucher programs students with more severe, costly needs have been discouraged from applying or sent packing after school starts, said Lisa Pugh, public policy coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities.
“A lot of times voucher schools will say, ‘Sure we can support your child with a disability,’ ” Pugh said. But “they will send that child back to the public school after they have taken the voucher amount and determined they do not have the resources, the trained staff to support that child.”
Could voucher schools lie about their services, then send kids back to public schools while keeping the money?
The answer is no on both fronts, despite what those who oppose vouchers claim.
The budget says schools must give applicants information on their special education instruction methods, available services and staff qualifications. If schools misrepresent themselves, the state Department of Public Instruction could kick them out of the voucher program.
The information requirement means “parents, before they apply, will know whether the school is equipped to educate their child,” Pleva said.
The budget also says voucher payments are “prorated” so schools get money only for the time a child is actually enrolled, according to Pleva.
However, Merrifield pointed out, the budget does not describe how the money would be prorated, whether by days, semesters or another measure.
Would voucher schools have to honor students’ special education plans?
Technically yes, but in practice that may not happen.
Racine Unified leaders, disability rights officials and state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, believe when special education children enter private schools they give up their rights to all the things public schools are required to provide, namely services and a specialized education plan (called an IEP). “If a parent of a child with a disability takes a voucher they have to give up all of their federal rights under IDEA,” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Racine Unified Superintendent and former special education director Ann Laing.
The proposed state budget, however, says a child’s new voucher school must implement his or her IEP and give a record of implementation, “including an evaluation of the child’s progress,” to the original school district.
“It does say in the (budget) language they need an IEP. Whether that’s meaningful is a topic for discussion,” Merrifield said.
While the budget would require IEP implementation, the federal and state mandates that govern IEPs in public schools would not apply “so it could be open to interpretation” and could be hard to police, Merrifield said.
“There’s a difference between saying they will do a plan and saying they will abide by and be governed by federal standards,” Mason said. “Anybody can write down a plan. That is not the same as having to be governed by those federal standards.”
Coming Monday: How much would special education vouchers be worth? Will it be enough for all kids?