I’m appalled by the lack of understanding of the issue exhibited in the recent Appleton Post-Crescent editorial, Bill could hurt special-needs students. Obviously, in spite of the misleading title, the newspaper is only interested in doing the bidding of powerful, paid education and disabilities lobbyists hoping to maintain the public schools monopoly and status quo, instead of supporting a promising effort to truly reform special needs education.
As a mother of three exceptionally challenged children and as a member of my local Board of Education, I wholeheartedly support AB110 and SB486, and the Special Needs Scholarship Program it establishes. I commend Representative Michelle Litjens and Senator Leah Vukmir, as well as each Assembly and Senate supporter and cosponsor for recognizing the genuine need for this law.
About fifteen to twenty years ago, my children, who are vision impaired, with physical and mental challenges, attended public schools. Our daughter was, in effect, warehoused, spending most days scribbling with crayons on scrap paper, usually half-ﬁlling a paper grocery bag each week… yet the school was unresponsive to our concerns. It wasn’t unusual for her to arrive home bruised or with a bloody face or broken glasses, yet the school was unresponsive to our concerns for her safety.
Exasperated, I expressed my frustrations to my doctor and was asked what I thought the school would do if I sent my daughter to school in the condition she arrived home… the lightbulb went on! I returned home, picked up the phone and reported them to Child Protective Services. That felt so good, I followed up by ﬁling an assault and battery report with the local police. The elementary school wasted no time in politely calling us, requesting a meeting. My husband and I arrived a few minutes early and witnessed the school attorney castigating the principal… and from then on things improved, significantly. That was, until she started middle school and it began all over, again.
Our family didn’t have an opportunity to use a Special Needs Scholarship. But knowing I could do far better than what our children experienced in public school, I homeschooled them. They not only learned, but did so even beyond my expectations.
In public school, our youngest son was illiterate at third grade when we began homeschooling. By ﬁfth grade, I had brought him up to grade level. I’ll never forget how after he learned to read – and even became proficient in spelling – he confessed how he always felt “dumb” in public school. Our daughter excelled at history and geography. Give her the name of a city and she will tell you it’s country and continent with an amazing level of accuracy. These children can learn, if they are given the right opportunity to do so.
One of the reasons I ran for a seat on our school board was to ensure other families do not go through what we experienced. Attending the Senate hearing last week and listening to so many parents testify about their situations, it became quite clear things haven’t changed all that much, at least for some.
There are many dedicated special ed teachers in Wisconsin and public schools which do a ﬁne job with special needs students. However, each child has their own, unique challenges. Try as they may, no school can be all things to all children. Parents love their children and know what’s best for them… they are the experts. But when the local school district is not meeting their child’s needs, parents must have options. The Special Needs Scholarship Program provides those options by empowering parents.
Special Needs Scholarship Program detractors cite the fact a public school losing a student would likewise lose general aid equal to the amount of the voucher. Should schools be paid for services they do not provide? Absolutely not.
Typically, public schools are only partially reimbursed from the state or federal governments, in our district’s case it’s about 27 cents for each dollar spent on special ed services, with local taxpayers footing the bill for the lion’s share at 73 cents. If Special Needs Scholarships become a reality and some parents choose to send their children to another school, far more dollars are freed up than what the school loses.
Parents of exceptionally challenged children pay their property taxes, yet if their local public school district is failing their child, is it right or fair they should have to pay a private school, also? Absolutely not.
When a special needs student’s education is stagnant or she is being victimized by bullies, is it right to trap the child in the ineffective, unsafe or unresponsive school for the remainder of the school year, until the parents can file an open enrollment request… for the following fall, which the local school boards can – and often do – decline? Absolutely not.
Public schools will continue receiving state aid for special needs students they educate. If they are truly doing a good job, they have nothing to fear – and may actually stand to gain new students. At the very least, the passage of AB110 or SB486 will force public schools to look inward and make positive changes by improving special needs students’ learning, ensuring they are not victims of bullies, being more responsive to the parents’ concerns and guaranteeing these programs operate at a higher level of ﬁscal responsibility.
Another beneﬁt could result from public school districts partnering and working cooperatively in providing special education services more efﬁciently and with greater effectiveness. Instead of each public school operating in a silo and reinventing the wheel for their pool of special ed students, much could be gained with a collaborative or reciprocal approach. Cooperative efforts between public school districts could be a win-win situation for all: the children and families served, participating public schools and taxpayers.
This is not a Democrat vs Republican issue. It is a matter of elected legislators setting aside their partisan politics and doing the right thing by listening to and representing these children and their families. After all, it is the parents who know what’s best for their own children… not powerful education-related organizations or paid lobbyists standing in opposition to this bill, desperate to prevent the school voucher genie from escaping the bottle while maintaining the status quo.
I firmly believe all parents should have the opportunity to choose their own child’s school, irrespective of their financial status or zip code, and regardless of the child’s standing as a special needs student or not… be it public, private, charter or homeschool.