WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment

Part 62 of 62 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

For special needs students whose parents have tried everything, some Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to offer some help.

Bills sponsored by state Sen. Leah Vukmir and state Rep. John Jagler would allow special needs students to attend public, charter, or private schools of their parents’ choice if the student has been denied access to open enrollment.

Sen. Leah Vukmir is sponsoring legislation to help special needs students who have been failed by the current system.

Open enrollment allows students to attend public schools other than their assigned neighborhood school, and more than 40 percent of special needs students’ applications are denied. That’s about 2,700 denials, but since students can apply multiple times, it’s likely fewer than 2,700 students would be eligible for the program, Jagler said.

Students with special needs receive a disproportionate amount of open enrollment denials, he said, and no one seems interested in fixing that system.

“All of the old arguments about school choice in general are popping up, but nobody has an answer for the open enrollment denials,” he said. “The Department of Public Instruction has said we can work on this through changes to the open enrollment system, but when I asked what those changes could be or if they’re looking at changes, they cannot tell me. I don’t have any real hope that the DPI is going to actually do anything to address the problem.”

The cost of the voucher or tuition payment would vary, but would be a percentage of the public schools’ estimate of the annual cost of educating the child, based on the student’s Individualized Education Program, said Christian D’Andrea, education policy analyst at the MacIver Institute.

The program holds an “empty promise,” according to Betsy Kippers, a teacher in Racine and president of Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“The dedicated teachers and education support professionals working in our neighborhood public schools work every day to meet the needs of all students. … Public schools are held accountable through oversight, and parents have rights as an added layer of protection. That is the promise of public education,” she said.

Dani Rossi, mother of two students with special needs, said her daughters were not getting satisfactory education at their local public school.

The public school system is working well for Rep. John Jagler’s daughter, who has special needs. But it doesn’t work well for everyone, he said.

“I had a licensed special education teacher state in numerous IEP meetings that it was ‘not her job’ to implement my daughter’s IEP,” she told the Assembly Committee on Education.

Jagler’s daughter has special needs and is thriving in her local public school, he said. Not every family is so fortunate.

“Much has been made about me getting involved in this, having a child with Down syndrome, but my kid’s story is a success story. My kid goes to public schools, and I have no intention of pulling her out of the district we’re in because they’re willing to help. The system is working for me, but obviously it’s not working for everyone,” he said.

Passing the bill is a matter of fairness to students who aren’t getting a quality education in the public system, Jagler said.

“These parents have tried everything that is allowed to them in the current system. They’ve worked through their individual schools and school districts with IEP. They’ve done all of that. The last resort is open enrollment,” he said. “They’re really trapped. They have nowhere else to go, and they’re being denied the education they deserve.”

Stop Special Needs Vouchers didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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