Every student with disabilities, no matter where they live or what their family’s circumstances, is entitled to a “free and appropriate education” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In theory, this means that every student with a disability should get the education she or he needs from their public school system. In practice, many do not, and parents find themselves having to advocate — and, in some cases, take legal action — to get their children the education they need.
Making things even harder, some have been calling for vouchers that would take public funds away from public schools and transfer them to private schools.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin Republicans proposed a measure for such special needs vouchers. Care2 member Joanne Juhnke of Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin started a petition to stop it. More than 1,100 Care2 members signed her petition and the bill died in committee.
The special needs voucher bill was essentially a revised version of a measure that had failed in the 2013-2015 budget of Governor Scott Walker. Supporters of the special needs vouchers bill argued that it would provide children with disabilities — who often face complex educational challenges requiring highly specialized instructional programs — with greater “flexibility” and “options.”
But the vouchers put the education of special needs students at risk. It is thanks to IDEA that students with disabilities have rights and protections that do not routinely apply in private schools as they do not have to comply with the same regulations for oversight as their public counterparts. In some cases, private schools have misused taxpayers’ dollars: Last fall, administrators at some New Jersey private schools for students with disabilities were found to have used public funds for “high executive salaries, generous pensions, fancy cars and questionable business deals.” Concerns have also been raised about the use of controversial procedures including restraints and seclusion rooms in private vs. public schools.
Joanne and other advocates knew they had to make sure taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund our public schools. On February 13, they presented the first 391 signatures on their Care2 petition to the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee. The committee chair was “outspokenly interested” to read the many comments that Care2 members had written on the petition (proof positive that yes, people do read the comments that you leave).
By the time of a public hearing on February 19, the signature count on the petition had grown past 1,000. Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin delivered all of these to the Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee that day.
The next step was for both the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee and the Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee (where Republican legislators were likely to support the measure) to vote. But then a funny thing happened: The bill calling for special needs vouchers died in committee, and Joanne closed the petition because Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin had won its campaign and saved public education for students with disabilities across the state.
There’s still more work to be done to preserve every child with a disability’s right to an education. The chairs of both Wisconsin education committees are Republicans and are being pressured by those who think private interests and agencies, should have a greater role in public education.
I live in the Bay Area in northern California, far from Wisconsin. My teenage son, Charlie, is on the severe end of the autism spectrum and has been in special education for all of his life. He has very complex learning needs and, without the protections of IDEA, would not be assured of the public education that is teaching him the skills he will need to lead as independent a life as he can.
It is crucial that we make sure all children with disabilities like Charlie and many others receive the education they more than merit and that funds for this go to public schools. That’s why, wherever you are, it’s more than worth taking action and starting a petition to protect our children’s education and future.
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