Surprise special needs vouchers elicit mixed responses

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The impromptu creation of a special needs voucher program early Wednesday morning caught disability rights advocates off guard, while those who supported the measure hailed the program as giving parents another option for educating their kids.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted to create the program at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday after unveiling the idea just five hours earlier. The program would function like open enrollment for public schools, with public dollars following each disabled student who leaves the district for a private school. The $12,000 voucher would be available only to special needs students whose applications to open enroll to another public school are denied and who have individualized education plans in place.

The divisive proposal has been rejected several times in the Legislature in recent years. By comparison, all other students who receive vouchers to attend private schools would cost public school districts $7,210 for elementary students and $7,856 for those in high school.

State disability advocate groups responded to the news Wednesday morning with anger, saying they weren't consulted. The program wasn't part of Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget.

"It feels very much like a sneak attack," spokeswoman for the group Stop Special Needs Vouchers Terri Hart-Ellis said. "It happened literally under the cover of night."

Voucher supporters contend the program would provide more options for disabled students and their families.

"These children and families are trapped. Their public school has failed them, and their chance of open enrollment has been taken away," said Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, the program's co-author. "We are giving families hope that their children can finally get the education they deserve."

Opponents say the program would drain funds from public schools and students in private voucher schools wouldn't receive the same legal protections they are guaranteed in public schools.

Hart-Ellis' daughter Addie, 11, has a cognitive disorder that prevents her from speaking. Instead Addie uses sign language and an iPad app to communicate. While her daughter has been academically involved each year in her classes in school in Whitefish Bay, Hart-Ellis worries the funding cuts to public schools could affect her public school education. She said if public school funds are depleted her daughter could be switched into a separate class.

"It costs less to segregate students with cognitive disorders, period," Hart-Ellis said. "And that's what I'm scared of."

Beth Swedeen, co-chair of Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations, said she had received many calls from families who were shocked by the action. She said most private schools aren't equipped to handle students with the most significant developmental disabilities. And private schools would not face the same federal oversight as public schools in putting together curriculums and documenting students' development, she said.

"There're no consequences if the students don't make progress," she said.

Dani Rossa said she withdrew her two daughters Camryn, 14, and Chloe, 10, from a Milwaukee public school two years ago because she was unhappy with the education they were getting there. Both girls are on the autism spectrum, she said, and weren't meeting the standards laid out in their individualized education plans.

"I just got to the point where I felt like I couldn't risk that every year," Rossa said. "It just felt like a gamble to me."

Rossa said since switching her daughters to a private school she has seen improvement, but the financial toll has been hard on her family.

"All those savings you have in your pot for a rainy day, that's all earmarked for education," Rossa said. "Everything we don't have to do gets cut."

Rossa said she has worried each year about how long she could afford Camryn and Chloe's private schooling. But with the new voucher program those worries could shrink, she said.


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