stop special needs vouchers!

Below is a press release I received in an email this morning. I plan to take Daniel to the Capitol for this afternoon's press conference to support my kids' friends and classmates with special needs and my friends who are parents of special needs children.



When:      February18, 2:30 PM
Where:     State Capitol, Room 330 SW; Madison, WI
Who:        Parents of Children with Disabilities and Students from throughout Wisconsin (Other Quality Education Advocates are
also welcome to attend)

Madison, WI -Parents from across Wisconsin traveled to Madison today with their children with disabilities to tell Governor Walker a proposal in his budget is very wrong for their kids and to ask him to remove it immediately.  The Governor announced yesterday that he will fund a special needs voucher program aimed at students with disabilities. Parents say the Governor was pressured by out-of-state organizations to include this harmful program without hearing from Wisconsin families about negative consequences. They are asking the Governor to remove the provision and to instead allow for balanced public debate on the issue within a legislative education committee.

Joanne Juhnke of Madison, mother to 8-year-old Miriam who has complex disabilities, says she worked with other parents to start the statewide grassroots group Stop Special Needs Vouchers due to significant concerns with previous voucher proposals that failed to pass the legislature last session. “The vouchers may sound very appealing on the surface, but the promises are false and the vouchers would be risky for the students who took them, says Juhnke. “Also, I am worried about what happens to those students with disabilities who remain in their public schools after funding is drained to support a voucher system that can really only serve certain children.”

Katie Austin Schierl from Neenah, mother to Jim (age 21) says her son, who has multiple disabilities, received transition services and other special education guarantees in his public school. “Parents lose essential rights to a quality education when they take a voucher," says Katie. “We should not be spending precious public tax dollars on an education that does not guarantee qualified staff, necessary therapies and a true IEP (Individualized Education Program) which must be implemented as written with parents at the table.”

Parents and people with disabilities from as far away as Dunn, Outagamie, Kenosha, Eau Claire and Milwaukee Counties were either at the event or represented by their letters and stories. Parents have a range of concerns about a voucher proposal, including reports of rampant fraud in other state special needs voucher/scholarship programs.  Parents say they question why legislators and the governor would want to use tax dollars for a program similar to Florida’s in which parents had been duped by storefront schools and fancy brochures. In some cases, students left schools without earning necessary credits and even suffered abuse. Parents also are concerned about the potential for double-dipping by predatory providers in Wisconsin who might see lucrative opportunities to combine vouchers with Wisconsin’s Medicaid programming for children with disabilities.

“For me, I am concerned about my small local school district which has less than 1000 students,says Tracy Hedman of Glendale. The mom to 9-year-old Cyril says she has recently attended school board meetings where hundreds of thousands of dollars in programming needed to be cut. “Our school is our community. It would be devastating for my district to lose just a few students and that funding.”

After sharing their stories parents delivered a resolution to Governor Walker, asking him to remove special needs voucher policy from his budget.

“It should be clear today, after hearing from parents around the state who have concerns, that this is policy that should not be fast-tracked in the state budget,says Juhnke. “This is the sort of significant education policy change that needs public hearings in a standing education committee in the legislature. Parents and education experts must debate this thoroughly before any decisions are made.”

The parents also noted that no statewide disability organization has endorsed a special needs scholarship proposal. “At the very least, the designers of this proposal should be asking the organizations and parent advocates who do special education trainings throughout the state what they think,says Paula Buege, parent of two children with special needs and parent peer specialist who attends IEP meetings with families throughout Wisconsin to help them design a quality education program. “No one knows better than these organizations and parents who have literally sat through thousands of IEP meetings, what the quality of special education is like in Wisconsin and how it can be improved.”

State and federal special education laws give children with disabilities and their parents important rights, which would not have been guaranteed for voucher students in last year’s proposed special needs voucher legislation. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives families of special education children the right to:
-- have their child assessed to determine special education eligibility and needs
-- participate in an annual "individualized education program" (IEP) meeting and develop a written IEP plan with representatives
of the local school district,
-- specialized transition programming and services aimed at meeting postsecondary outcomes, and
--resolve disputes with the school district through an impartial administrative and legal process.

Special education law requires that a child with a disability receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). An IEP is a legal document listing, among other things, the special educational services that the child will receive, provided by staff with certain defined credentials and training.

Following the 2:30 press event parents planned to visit the Governor’s office to make a final plea for special needs vouchers to be removed from the state budget.


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