In support of special needs scholarships

By CRAIG PETERSON | March 4, 2015

Heaven forbid. But imagine for one moment you are the parent of a child with an illness.  Because of the type of health insurance you do or do not have, you are told by bureaucrats, union advocates and their enablers that you cannot send your child to the clinic or provider where you feel he or she would receive the best treatment.

As a parent, you diligently do research, seek out second opinions and, most important, know your child’s health needs better than anyone. But these nameless, faceless, financially motivated panels argue your child is not an individual but rather a quota, a bed to fill, to ensure the financial integrity of the institution they represent. They claim to know better than the parents, but they, and the elected leaders who represent them, are simply out to protect the parochial interests of their stakeholders.

This sad and shameful scenario is played out not only in medical boardrooms but also in classrooms and legislative hallways in Wisconsin.

The issue being debated is the creation of a statewide public scholarship, or voucher program, for children with special needs. The concept is not new and is available in other states. Sixty-two percent of Wisconsin residents support special needs vouchers, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Poll released in January.

Children with special needs require customized education programs to reach their full potential. Some public schools have great resources to provide those needs, while others fall short. The Wisconsin Special Needs Scholarship initiative would give parents the opportunity to do what they believe is best for their child, much like parents who seek the best medical treatment for their child’s illness.

In Wisconsin, but not in all states, parents of children with special needs are pretty much limited to the schools in the districts in which they live. All public schools, and some private schools, have varying programs for children with special needs with different levels of outcomes.

One benchmark in measuring the success and learning opportunities for special needs children is the practice of inclusion -- simply stated, the amount of time a special needs child is included in the classroom with the “regular” students during a typical day. Some school districts are better at it than others, and geographic boundaries are not the litmus test for success. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction measures the inclusion rate of each school district, and the numbers can vary widely. In Milwaukee County, for example, you will find some districts with inclusion rates in the 30th percentile and others at almost 80th. These districts can be neighbors, so wealth is not necessarily a factor.

The idea of interaction between all students is critical for special needs students. Being included on a social and educational level prepares our children for better integration and independence in the future, when Mom and Dad won’t be there to watch over them.

Parents of special needs children realize the academic, physical and health challenges their children face and understand what is necessary for the children to learn, stay healthy and mature. But unfortunately, some Wisconsin students with special needs have become pawns in the voucher debate, whereby special interest groups, some even calling themselves disability advocates, seek to maintain their piece of the pie at the expense of the group they are claiming to protect. In other words, they are less interested in what is best for the child than for the financial benefit they may accrue. Sounds callus, but unfortunately it’s true.

Those against special needs scholarships fear a loss of funding for public school districts, fewer union jobs and less work for some disability rights advocates, all of whom have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo. But their arguments are hollow. The number of students who could or want to participate is minimal, and the program also could strengthen existing public and private school programs, since the scholarships would be available for students to attend public or private schools. And safeguards would be in place to protect the students and the state. (Update: On May 19, the Joint Finance Committee moved to adopt a state budget that includes a provision to create a special needs voucher program.)

At the end of the day, it is the parents who are responsible for their children’s protection, future and well-being. As the parent of a handsome and bright young son with special needs, I am outraged at the opposition’s empty rhetoric simply to maintain their stake -- at a substantial cost to our children and their well-being.

Craig Peterson is CEO and president of Zigman Joseph PR. This column represents his personal opinion.