By Ruth Conniff on July 26, 2011

Republican lawmakers and corporations have a new target: kids in special ed.

It sounds like a sick joke, but it’s true.

Like cartoon schoolyard bullies, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the powerful coalition of corporations and rightwing legislators—has worked out plans to trick special ed students and their families into giving up their federally protected educational benefits, in exchange for cheap vouchers that can be used in unregulated, fly-by-night academies.

Working off ALEC’s proposed legislation--recently leaked by a whistleblower to the Center for Media and Democracy, and viewable on the web site ALEC Exposed--Republicans are pushing private-school voucher bills for kids with disabilities in states across the country.

At first glance, these bills don’t seem all bad. Whether or not you agree with the idea of using public school funds to send kids to private school, individual disabled children whose needs aren’t met in public schools might benefit from being able to use private school vouchers, right?

Wrong.

Advocates for the disabled strongly oppose special ed voucher legislation—and not because the vouchers drain resources from the public schools.

What a lot of people don’t understand, says Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, is that disabled students who take advantage of special ed vouchers forfeit their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

That means they no longer have a right to a “free, appropriate public education” or the specific services that come along with that.

Not only that, they give up their chance to get their school districts to cover the costs of private education, if the local public schools can’t meet their needs.

“Embedded in the law is the ability to either voluntarily or legally force school districts to pay for private schools, at significant expense,” says Spitzer-Resnick.

He should know, since he has forced school districts to pay for students’ private education more than once. Under the voucher program, those kids would never be able to afford such an expensive deal. The voucher system drafted by ALEC and before the state assembly in Wisconsin in the form of AB110 gives parents of disabled kids the option to trade their rights for a voucher worth whatever costs less: private school tuition or the value of their special education services.

The result of this cost-saving, rights-stripping approach is on display in Florida, where the nation’s first special ed voucher program recently exploded into the news with a spectacular scandal involving rampant fraud and abuse.

ALEC praised Florida’s McKay special education scholarship fund in a 2003 resolution (viewable on ALEC Exposed) promoting school choice for children with disabilities and decrying the “burdensome regulations” of the current special education system. ALEC criticized the federal law’s “adversarial process, pitting parent against educator, that encourages litigation, not mediation” and contrasted it with Florida’s. “In the state of Florida, where school choice scholarships are offered, achievement is up and the cost of services is down,” the resolution declared.

Reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts from Miami’s New Times visited the special ed voucher schools in Florida, and blew that assertion all to hell in a scathing June expose headlined “McKay Scholarship Program Sparks a Cottage Industry of Fraud and Chaos

Garcia-Roberts told of fly-by-night schools for the disabled in Florida, including South Florida Prep, where “two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor.” Students zoned out in front of blaxploitation flicks, supervised by inexperienced staff with no books and no curriculum requirements. At one school, parents complained that an administrator spanked his charges with a paddle, telling them the state had no jurisdiction to make him stop. (Turns out he was not far off: The Department of Ed can’t pull McKay scholarship funds from a school based on its disciplinary policies.)

Since then-governor Jeb Bush introduced the program twelve years ago, it has grown to consume $148.6 million in the last year, the New Times reports—up 38 percent from five years ago. With virtually no oversight and no strings attached, the state has handed out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to schools run by unsupervised administrators, including “criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary,” the New Times reports.

But this hasn’t stopped Bush from becoming a star among school choice advocates, including the American Federation for Children. Lately, he has been touring the country promoting Florida’s school reform plans.

Besides siphoning off public funds, there is another motivation for running cheap schools for the disabled, the New Times article points out: “Failing kids, who would sabotage all-important standardized test scores, are herded en masse to dubious McKay schools.”

This is exactly what advocates for the disabled fear in Wisconsin, where AB110, a bill that borrows language directly from ALEC’s model bill, the “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” is before the state Assembly.

The bill “guarantees nothing in these private schools,” says Spitzer-Resnick.

Advocates fear that special ed vouchers will undo decades of work getting special-needs kids into regular, public schools. Instead, we will have segregation. Disabled kids will go to separate schools for autism, behavioral and cognitive disorders, and other disabilities.

Pulling disabled kids out of the community and locking them away in segregated institutions flies in the face of research that shows that mainstreaming disabled kids not only helps the disabled, it benefits the non-disabled kids who learn alongside them.

I have seen this in my own kids’ school, where, in my daughter’s first-grade class, the teacher cultivated such a loving, respectful relationship between a student with severe autism and his peers that the other kids glowed with pride along with him as he learned and grew throughout the year. Seeing their sibling-like, cooperative relationship literally brought tears to my eyes.

That sense of community and caring is threatened by budget cuts and a race-to-the-bottom mentality.

As schools are increasingly financially squeezed, conflict arises between parents of special needs kids and other parents.

“No one else gets ‘free, appropriate education,’ ” Spitzer-Resnick points out. “People get angry. There’s resentment: ‘We lost our art teacher because of these kids.’ No one wants that.”

It shows you how far we’ve fallen as a society that parents of non-disabled kids begrudge special needs kids extra therapy and tutoring.

Worse, shadowy, corporate interests are deliberately manipulating people’s fears.

Spitzer-Resnick says a Facebook friend of his who is the mother of a disabled child “liked” the special education voucher page put up by the American Federation for Children.

“It made me realize people are vulnerable,” Spitzer-Resnick says. “This whole movement is predicated on trading on parents’ legitimate frustrations for what their kids are not receiving and then sprinkling magic fairy dust by saying, ‘Here, we’ll give you a voucher and all your frustrations will go away.’ ”

In general, private-school vouchers are an assault on the whole idea of high-quality, universal public education. But in places like Milwaukee, at least they have helped some low-income families send their kids to decent private schools. With special ed vouchers, ALEC and Republican state legislators have hit a new low: stealing money, and prospects for a good education and a good future, from mentally and physically disabled children. It's hard to imagine a worse public policy than that.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "ALEC Exposed--How Corporations Are Taking Over Our Democracy."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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