Posted by Ruth Conniff on February 21, 2012

It’s crunch time on school vouchers for disabled kids in Wisconsin.

Last summer, I wrote about how Republicans and school choice groups are targeting kids in special ed.

A particularly noxious piece of “school reform” legislation, drafted by ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) and pushed by Republicans in statehouses around the country, would get unsophisticated parents to swap their kids’ federally protected right to a free, appropriate public education for school vouchers of highly dubious value to the kids.

How dubious? An expose in the Miami New Times tracked the fly-by-night academies housed in strip malls where special ed kids with vouchers wasted hours crammed into makeshift classrooms with bored, untrained, and sometimes abusive teachers.

But there is good news: In Wisconsin, a prime target for the privatizers who would like to dismantle our public education system, the special ed voucher law has been stalled.

The reason: Moderate Republicans have not been willing to go along with it, among a handful of Governor Scott Walker’s other anti-public-school reforms.

Ever since the summer recall elections, which narrowed the Republican majority in the state senate to one, some of the worst education plans have been shelved—at least temporarily.

But suddenly, lo and behold, the special ed voucher plan is back—up for consideration by the Wisconsin assembly’s education executive committee tomorrow (February 22), and tentatively before the senate committee on February 28.

Update: The bill passed the Assembly committee on February 22. Stay tuned for public hearings in the Senate February 28.

Two of the biggest players in the national school choice movement—Wisconsin’s disgraced former assembly speaker Scott Jensen, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and Brian Pleva, former spokesman for the Wisconsin Assembly Republican Campaign Committee, both now of the American Federation for Children—came to Madison recently to talk special ed vouchers in a meeting that included advocates for disabled kids.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, met with Jensen and Pleva to talk about the revived bill, known in Wisconsin as AB110.

The new bill is slightly better than the old version, Spitzer-Resnick said. For example, it allows disabled kids to bring their Individual Educational Plans with them when they go to a voucher school. But, Spitzer-Resnick points out, “these schools can serve kids until they are 21. So the IEP you brought with you when you started in kindergarten quickly becomes less relevant.”

Unlike a similar plan in Ohio, the Wisconsin bill does not require voucher schools to have certified special education teachers on staff.

And the most fundamental problem with the bill remains:

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, in fact, 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,” Spitzer-Resnick explains.

His group has been suing the Milwaukee Public School system for over a decade and 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 gives parents of disabled kids the option to trade their rights for a voucher worth whichever costs less: private school tuition, or the value of their special education services.

But what really bothers Spitzer-Resnick about the new draft of the legislation is how it is designed to serve the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and the less disabled at the expense of the more disabled.

Here’s why:

There is no income limit for families that take advantage of the program, and no tuition cap for schools that accept vouchers.

That means wealthy families with disabled children can take the vouchers worth about $13,000 each (or less, if their child’s needs are less expensive) and apply them to private school tuition costs that far exceed the value of the voucher. Effectively, they get a $13,000 price cut on their private school tuition.

But poorer families, particularly those with kids whose disabilities put their education costs way above $13,000, can’t afford to pay extra and so can’t use their vouchers in expensive private schools.

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction has estimated that the total cost of the new law to the Milwaukee Public School District could be as high as $89 million in the first year.

Stay tuned for the hearings on the proposal this week.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Which Way, Wisconsin? How to Compete with Walker?"

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter