Gov. Scott Walker's proposal released earlier this week to devote $21 million to special education vouchers (see page 6 of the linked document) is under attack from some school advocacy and disability rights groups, but a "free-market" think tank in the state says that such a program might be a way to get more students with disabilities into private schools.
The program, which would be funded at $21 million over two years, would allow parents to use the money that would normally flow from the state to the public school district to educate that child. There's no income limit on the families who would be allowed to use the program. Last year the state's General Assembly backed a similar proposal, which would have allotted up to $13,000 for a student in special education to attend a school of his or her choice. However, the bill did not pass the state senate.
Eight states have vouchers for students with disabilities. Details of each state's program have been compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The same groups that opposed the last voucher plan, such as Disability Rights Wisconsin, are gearing up to fight this newest proposal. The advocacy group says that such programs mean that parents give up state and federal protections when they enroll their children in private school, among other problems.
"Instead of spending scarce taxpayer dollars on unregulated special needs vouchers that have not been proven to improve outcomes in other states, Wisconsin should invest in ... special education funds that can benefit all students," the organization said in policy brief.
But the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative-leaning policy group, recently released a report based on a poll of private school leaders in the state that said many of those schools would welcome more students with disabilities, but that funding is a problem. Mike Nichols, the author of the report, said that school leaders complained that local school districts are not identifying students with disabilities in a timely fashion. The private schools say they also have difficulty accessing special education dollars, which are supposed to flow from the local school district to the private school.
"Anything where the money follows the child would be a better system than what we currently have operating," he said.
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