Lisa and Jack McCloskey of Watertown know firsthand how critical it is for Wisconsin parents to have educational options. They home-schooled their three boys: Collin and Shaun, who are serving as U.S. Marines, and Liam, who’s studying kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. Their daughter, 14-year-old Grace, has Down syndrome and speech apraxia, requiring services they could not provide at home.
Gracie, as she is affectionately known, enjoyed going to school her local public middle school in Watertown and interacting with her peers — until the pandemic hit. She struggled with the shutdown and subsequent restrictive mandates imposed by the school.
They considered putting Gracie in a local parochial school but students with special needs do not have access to adequate funding there. When the school couldn’t partner Gracie with a paraprofessional, the McCloskeys had to look elsewhere.
Fortunately, Lake Country Classical Academy in Oconomowoc — a public, independent charter school — opened at the time they were looking. While the school is in another community, it allowed them to place Gracie in an environment where she is now thriving.
Unfortunately, there are still systemic funding inequities. Students with special needs are eligible for state categorical aids and federal aid while attending either an independent charter or traditional public school. But local and state funding for traditional public schools exceeds that of independent charter schools by thousands of dollars per student.
These disparities add up, making it difficult for choice and charter schools to provide the same level of resources as traditional public schools.
The McCloskeys sat down with Michael Jahr, Badger Institute vice president of communications and government relations, to share their story.
Lisa: Gracie, she’s a high-spirited little gal. She’s 14 years old. She loves dance. She loves music. She loves noodles and ice cream. She enjoys being with her family. She adores her brothers.
You just have to engage with her and experience who Gracie is. What makes her happy is just knowing that she’s involved, knowing that she’s a part of a group or of a project, like at school.
Jack: Gracie being born with Down Syndrome was a surprise to us. We did not test, you know, when Lisa was expecting. We made the decision, very early on, that we would honor whatever life God gave us.
We came with a lot of unknowns. And it’s been a journey for us as individuals and for us as a family, especially as Gracie gets older and her needs change and we have to adapt to those needs.
Lisa: So, she was attending our local school here in town. And when COVID hit, no one really knew what to expect as far as what school is going to look like for everyone, let alone someone with an IEP.*
And I must say that it was a struggle. I was trying to teach her (her lessons), which in and of itself I didn’t mind. We homeschooled our three boys, so that came kind of naturally.
But for special ed, that’s quite challenging. I’m honestly not equipped for that.
Trying to do speech, physical, occupational therapy via Zoom, I don’t know how effective that could really be.
Jack: I want to say that everyone involved in her care were dedicated professionals. We knew the intent of everyone. Everyone loves Gracie.
It was a collision of the trauma and extraordinary circumstances surrounding the pandemic and answering the question, How do you educate a child with special needs?
Lisa: So, we weren’t able to resume face-to-face anything. They did a hybrid model where a select few would be doing school at home and some over at the school. And even then it was difficult because all of the COVID protocols. Gracie, being nonverbal, was excused from wearing a mask. You need to almost hear her and read her lips in order to understand her. And because she was exempt from that, she was isolated a lot when she was at school.
She didn’t like that kind of environment. It actually frightened her. There have been many times on her communication log that she would try to run away when someone wasn’t looking because she was by herself, isolated in a corner of a room.
It just wasn’t conducive for her. She probably didn’t understand why she wasn’t with the rest of the special ed class. She was probably wondering why she had to eat alone.
It was very, very traumatic. So, even though the school did try to work with what they had, it just wasn’t working for her. She was crying every day.
And as a parent, what could you do? What other options did we have? We had to do the best we could with what we had, and we just had to, I guess, ride out that school year and hope and pray we can find something different for her. And thankfully, we did.
Jack: That was when they announced LCCA (Lake Country Classical Academy) was forming. The decision to go back to school and just to decide this is how we’re going to educate our children pushed us in that direction to educate her in a charter environment.
Lisa: So, I filled out the application, enrolled her and got the great news that she was accepted.
Her first year, it was all new for everyone. It’s a brand new, independent charter school. I’m sure there were some wrinkles that they needed to iron out, but it was just a really great experience. We were all new. We were all coming from different districts with different experiences. We were just happy that this was a choice for us to pursue, and I’m extremely thankful for that.
This is her second year. Her first year, it was just night and day. She really enjoyed herself there. She made friends, and they’re very engaging. They involve her. They love being around her. And they don’t feel that she’s a project. They treat her just like anybody else in the classroom.
The special ed team is fantastic. They’re adapting it to a level that she can understand. The difference with this particular special ed team is that they’re very engaged. A lot of times they approach me on something like, “Hey, what do you think about this?”
(In the traditional public school) I had to do a lot of the pursuing. So, it’s good that it’s a good relationship for both of our efforts to help Gracie thrive.
The school actually has been a godsend for us. We’ve been very, very happy.
But I know there is a gap between the cost of educating a child (in a traditional public school vs. a choice or charter school). And that’s a great concern of mine, and I’m sure many other families feel the same way. It needs to change. Reform needs to happen.
Allow the funds to follow the child … so that they can have that chance to really fully educate (in my case) my daughter and help her be the best person she can be in the academic environment as well as her therapy environment.
That reform definitely needs to happen, and it needs to happen now instead of later.
I mean if it’s not working in one school, then give them the opportunity to investigate and go to that other school just so that they can thrive. I mean that’s what we want, don’t we? I mean we want our children to thrive in school so that they can become responsible citizens and contributing citizens in the future as adults.
To legislators, if you were just to have 10 minutes with my daughter, you would know that if she is not fully funded as a student, she will lag behind. And as a mom, and to all the other moms out there serving on the Legislature, you know that that is not right. That is not acceptable.
I ask that you do what you can to fight for more funding for the school choice program and reform, as well, as far as the policies and procedures that go with it.
And Governor Evers, have lunch with us sometime and take a look at my daughter. She has so much potential – so much potential. What do you have to lose?
If this is about the children, then make it about the children and not about bureaucracy and dollars only to traditional schooling. This is not a cookie-cutter type of situation where everyone learns the same thing at the same time at the same level. Not so with my daughter.
She needs the additional help. She needs the additional services to help her thrive as an individual. And maybe someday, just someday, changing the world. Even though she has Down Syndrome, but she has the greatest potential in making this world a better place.
*Individualized Education Program, a document required by U.S. law for each public school child in who needs special education.
Right now in Wisconsin, traditional public schools receive an average of approximately $15,000 per student in funding from federal, state and local taxpayers. Independent, public charter schools and private schools that are part of one of Wisconsin’s parental choice programs receive thousands of dollars less. The Badger Institute is part of a coalition (other members include School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children and K12/Stride) advocating for funding parity.