Children with special needs discriminated against - until now

The special education voucher program will help a small but deserving group of kids who repeatedly have been denied the opportunities available to their non-disabled peers.

By MIKE NICHOLS | May 20, 2015

After years of talk and delay – and numerous WPRI studies and commentaries on our website – the Joint Finance Committee placed a much-needed Special Education Voucher Program in the budget this week.

That means the program under which some kids with disabilities will receive a $12,000 taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school likely will become law soon. 

The program will help a small but deserving group of kids who repeatedly have been denied the opportunities available to their non-disabled peers.

There are over 120,000 children in Wisconsin’s public K-12 schools who are formally designated as having a disability. Many of them are happy where they are and receive excellent educations, sometimes in their own school district and sometimes in a neighboring one. In our March 2014 WPRI white paper, “Unrealized Potential,” we noted that during the 2012-’13 school year, 3,198 special needs students were able to attend a public school outside their district via the state’s open enrollment law.

But another 2,327 had their applications denied by either their home district or the district they wanted to transfer into – a 42% denial rate. If you include only kids with special needs who wanted to attend a bricks-and-mortar school in another district (rather than those who want to take classes online someplace), the denial rate was even higher: 48%.

The new voucher program, assuming it remains in the budget, will make it harder for public school districts to issue such denials. Children who are still denied – and those children alone, maybe a few thousand a year – will be able to use the voucher for an eligible private school instead.

Some argue that taxpayer money should never be used to help kids with special needs in private  schools. They ignore long-established history. Federal lawmakers and courts determined long ago that children who don’t receive an “appropriate” education in a public school are supposed to be entitled to “equitable participation” in funding and services in private schools.

Unfortunately, this often does not happen and even when it does the funding is inadequate.

An individual child’s chance of receiving public funding or services while enrolled in a private school is currently dependent upon the actions of the local public school district in which he or she lives as well as the amount of money available — something in and of itself determined by local public school officials through a federally mandated process known as “child find.” You’ll see more information about why that’s a problem in the 2013 WPRI report, “How Wisconsin is Failing to Help Kids with Disabilities.”

You’ll see what looks like a good solution to a longstanding injustice in the legislation now making its way to the Assembly, the Senate and, ultimately, the desk of the governor.

Mike Nichols is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.


Liz Tolsma: Parents deserve a choice on where to educate children with special needs

Craig Peterson: In support of special needs scholarships