Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Yesterday a group of families of kids with disabilities called Stop Special Needs Vouchers held a press event at the Wisconsin State Capitol to express their concerns about Governor Walker's proposal to add $21 million to the next budget for special needs vouchers. Following the event they walked over to Walker's office and delivered a letter to him requesting him to remove special needs vouchers from the budget.
Walker is scheduled to give his biennial budget address tomorrow evening, and has been strategically releasing bits and pieces of his budget proposal over the past few weeks. On Sunday his office unveiled proposals to vastly expand the private school voucher program to include school districts with more than 4,000 students that have at least two schools that are "failing" according to the newly created school report card system, and to create and fund two new programs: A special needs voucher program and a statewide charter school authorizing board that could authorize charter schools to be opened in school districts without the approval of local school boards.
Walker championed all three of these proposals during the last legislative session when they arose as separate bills. Although both the Assembly and the Senate are controlled by Republicans, all three measures failed to pass out of the Senate Education Committee. Republican senators that represent larger school districts were concerned about the loss of local control and revenue in districts that are hamstrung by the fiscal double whammy of massive cuts in state aid to public schools combined with state-imposed caps on the amount of revenue districts can raise in property tax levies.
By placing these and other controversial proposals into the massive state budget bill -- a document that is likely to be 600 pages long -- proponents of those measures avoid public hearings and separate legislative committee votes focused on one topic. Instead, the budget proposed by the Governor is vetted by the Joint Committee on Finance, which considers amendments over a four-month period before the two houses vote on it in June. There are usually four public hearings on the entire budget in different parts of the state, though these tend to be pro forma with most of the wheeling and dealing going on behind closed doors at the Capitol.
During a visit to a local Madison business on his Talk with Walker tour in December, Walker told the audience that the point of the tour was to get input and feedback on the budget from private sector business people before it gets released to the general public. In this short video clip from the event he tells them that their voices were not likely to count as much during the public budget hearings.
This is a major concern of disability rights groups in Wisconsin and emphasized by several speakers at the Stop Special Needs Vouchers event yesterday. In a statement released yesterday, Disability Rights of Wisconsin said, "Disability advocacy groups are specifically requesting, due to concerns about unintended consequences, that any voucher proposal aimed at vulnerable students with disabilities be removed from the budget and debated separately in a standing education committee."
Noting that no longstanding statewide disability group asked for, or was consulted about, the special needs voucher plan, Melissa Stoltz of Beloit, who has a daughter with Down Syndrome, said, "There is a phrase often used in disability advocacy: 'nothing about us without us.' I am here to say: 'Governor Walker, nothing about our families without our families!'"
Other fundamental objections to special needs vouchers concern the unaccountability of private schools that receive public funds through voucher schemes, and the overall effect on the quality of special education services in public schools as more money is funneled out of school district coffers to pay for private school tuition through vouchers.
Several families told personal stories demonstrating how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the requirement that all public school students with disabilities have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) were important legal backstops as they advocated for their children in school, even with well-meaning teachers and staff.
Mary Pierick of Madison put it this way: "When you let a voucher school get away with not following the same rules, like not having a legally enforceable IEP, or using unlicensed teachers, or not having to compare test scores to public schools, then families will end up suffering even more than they already do."
Private schools that would receive special needs voucher money can also be selective about which kids they admit, unlike public schools that must accept all students. Public school advocates worry that this selection process will leave the kids with the biggest needs in public schools with fewer resources to serve them.
Ann Laing, superintendent of the Racine Unified Public School District where a voucher system was put into place last year, is deeply concerned about both the potential for a separate special needs voucher plan as well as the removal of limits on regular vouchers her district will be faced with next year. This year, of the 500 total allowable number of vouchers available to families in Racine, 242 went to families whose kids had been attending public schools the year before, and 258 went to families who already had kids enrolled in private, religious schools.
Calling it a "voucher tax," Laing said, "We had to raise property taxes to pay for kids to go to private school. Next year when vouchers are unlimited we will have to exceed our revenue authority and go to referendum. It will be worse if special needs vouchers are included." She added, "It is my belief that many families who already have children in private schools will be the ones to receive vouchers."
The school voucher ploy is big business. It is one of a variety of strategies used by Walker and his legislative cronies to bring about the massive, radical redistribution of wealth from those Wisconsinites who work enough to pay taxes -- but who are not connected or powerful enough to avoid them -- to private businesses. The hollowing out and destruction of once-great state institutions like public education and the human suffering that follow as the result of these reverse Robin Hood policies seem to escape the notice of politicians who are more focused on paying back campaign donors and currying favor with lobbyists whose ranks they may soon be joining.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.