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Wisconsin Special Needs Vouchers Survive Controversial Start, Opposition

Scott_Walker_Budget_Bill.jpgWisconsin Gov. (and recently announced Republican presidential candidate) Scott Walker signed a budget bill Sunday that will allow certain students with disabilities to use public dollars to pay for private school.

The provision will start in the 2016-17 school year and will be worth $12,000 in that first year. It can be used by students who attended a Wisconsin public school for at least one year and who had been rejected from enrolling as a nonresident in another school district under Wisconsin's open-enrollment policy.

Nonresident students can be denied a transfer for several reasons, including a lack of space, a history of habitual truancy or expulsion, or requirement of special education services that aren't currently offered by the district they want to transfer into. (The state's education department is facing a lawsuit that says the Wisconsin students with disabilities have been denied open-enrollment placements solely because of their need for special services.)

In the new voucher program, private schools would have to agree to implement the child's individualized education program, as modified by agreement between the student's parents and the private school. Also, the child's district of residence will be required to evaluate the child every three years, unless the parent and the district agree otherwise. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan agency that provides fiscal analysis to state lawmakers, has a document that spells out all of the provisions of the Wisconsin special education voucher program.

Wisconsin Budget Changes Open-Enrollment Policies for Students With Disabilities

The voucher program got off to a controversial start when it was added to the state budget proposal around 1 a.m. May 20, after a marathon budget hearing. That move angered the parents involved in Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin, among others, who said the move was done without any public debate or input.

Tony Evers, the state's superintendent of education, also opposed the Wisconsin special education voucher program. The budget already has provisions that will make it easier for students with disabilities to take advantage of open enrollment, Evers said. For example, the student's home district—which retains financial responsibility for students even when they transfer—had been able to halt a transfer, claiming it would cause an undue financial burden. That reason for denial has been eliminated. 

The vouchers have been passed but the organization opposing them plans to remain vigilant, said Joanne Juhnke, a Madison parent of a student with a disability and a member of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers steering committee. 

"Once there's a foot in the door, what we find is the conditions that were on [the provision] get chipped away," Juhnke said in an interview with Education Week.

Photo: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker displays a signed 2015-2017 state budget during a ceremony on the production floor of Valveworks USA in Waukesha, Wis., on July 12.—John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP

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