By Jessica Mason and Matthew Rothschild
Thursday afternoon, a group of 75 Wisconsin...
Republicans have been targeting kids in special ed with an ALEC-sponsored school privatization scheme, now working its way through the legislature in Wisconsin.
This issue—a microcosm of the rightwing attack on education and the whole public sphere—is particularly interesting to watch right now, as people in Wisconsin are actually turning the ship and resisting the privatization push.
On Tuesday, February 28, the Wisconsin state senate’s education committee held a day-long hearing on special ed voucher legislation proposed by Senator Leah Vukmir. (Vukmir was ALEC’s 2009 “legislator of the year.”)
Sen. Vukmir, presented her bill while seated beside a mother and a child with special needs, who reinforced her pitch that special needs kids deserve choice.
Florida pioneered special ed vouchers with its McKay Scholarship program, which Vukmir described as a huge success.
A parade of agonized parents followed, telling their stories about the challenges their kids faced, the inadequate response of the public school system, and for the most part, the resolution in which they sent their kids to private schools that served them better.
Under Vukmir’s proposal, Senate Bill 486, kids with special needs could get vouchers to help cover the cost of private school tuition. The catch, as I wrote last week is that the program would cap the voucher’s dollar value at about $13,500 per pupil—far less than kids with serious disabilities need to cover the costs of their education. (There is no per-pupil cap on special ed spending in the public schools).
More importantly, that same $13,500 would be withdrawn from a student’s public school district, so paying for services like a therapist or tutor who works with multiple special needs kids in a particular public school would become harder.
Incredibly, there is no cap on income for parents who use the vouchers, and no cap on the tuition they use the vouchers to help pay.
So millionaires can use the vouchers to get a discount on expensive private-school tuition. Taxpayers pay the freight and special needs kids who can’t afford to supplement the cost of their own education take the brunt of reduced public school funds.
Furthermore, the bill becomes law, people who already have kids in private school will become eligible for the vouchers—creating an uncalculated drain on their school districts.
During the course of the hearing, all of these issues came up, and Sen. Vukmir answered them, arguing that the private school parents who brought their kids to the hearing had as much right as low-income families to public money to help cover their tuition.
At one point, she got into a heated argument with Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, the attorney for the advocacy group Disability Rights Wisconsin, which is worth watching on Wisconsin Eye.
Vukmir called it a “myth” that private schools would not be held accountable to follow children’s Individual Educational Plans under her bill. But Spitzer-Resnick made his point—that parents give up their children’s federally protected rights to a free, appropriate, public education under the bill, and would have no ability to sue if private schools didn’t follow IEPs.
The whole issue of private school vouchers has a long history in Wisconsin. Under former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, the state created the first voucher program in the nation in Milwaukee.
That program, like the voucher program for kids in special ed, was hotly debated.
Painfully, it pitted defenders of public education against African American parents who argued forcefully that their children were ill served by the crumbling Milwaukee public schools and deserved a ticket out.
Like the first voucher program, the special ed voucher program is supported by big, national school choice groups.
(Brian Pleva of American Federation for Children testified in favor of the bill at yesterday’s hearing.)
But, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick points out, there are important differences:
“In that situation you had a groudswell led by [former Milwaukee schools superintended] Howard Fuller, and there was zero question that MPS was not providing quality education for those kids. You cannot make the same claim for kids with disabilities.”
Spitzer-Resnick’s group—which has sued the Milwaukee Public Schools in a class action, and sometimes helps kids with disabilities get private school placements if their needs are not being met--opposes the bill.
He describes the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act as the most powerful piece of educational legislation in the country. So powerful that the mere thought of lawsuits has prodded school districts into meeting students’ needs.
“There is no Howard Fuller on this one,” he adds. “The equivalent would be if there were a disability rights group supporting this. That’s not the case. Instead, you have the American Federation for Children coming in.”
And then there are the parents themselves.
Donna Pahuski testified at the hearing, holding up a picture of her daughter, who was diagnosed with classic autism as a very young child.
“My daughter was a biter, a hitter, and a kicker. She weighed 25 pounds, and she could bring adults to their knees,” she said.
Then she went on to describe how the teachers and special ed professionals at her public school in Cambridge, Wisconsin, changed her daughter’s life, through expert, early intervention that led to her recovery.
At the end of her testimony, Pahuski held up a high school graduation picture of her daughter, who is now in Ecuador on a study-abroad program, thriving, Pahuski says, thanks to the timely intervention of experts.
The problem with the special ed voucher bill, she said, is that it would drain resources that had helped save her daughter’s life, and strand families who couldn’t afford private school.
Furthermore, there is no requirement that private schools hire staff with the same expertise as those who served her daughter so well.
Pahuski returned to Vukmir’s point about Florida—the state that pioneered special ed vouchers (the subject of a devastating investigation by the Miami New Times that showed how these kids are housed in strip malls with unqualified, bored 20 year old teachers, as I noted in an earlier piece).
“This is not Florida, or Texas, or Ohio,” Pahuski added. “When your state is pulling up the rear, it’s time to take big risks,” she said. “Not in Wisconsin, with the state’s wonderful reputation . . . There is no place in America I’d rather raise children than right her in Wisconsin.”
That sentiment—shared across partisan lines—is exactly what has stopped the school reform drive in Wisconsin in its tracks.
Dismantling public education is a harder sell in a state with great public schools and a model university system.
“I believe that there will not be sufficient Republican support to pass this bill,” says Spitzer-Resnick. “We believe there are as many as five Republican senators who are prepared to vote against it.”
The brush-back of school reformers in Wisconsin is an encouraging sign.
Like so many issues, this one could go either way. But the signs are good right now.
Wisconsin has been on the cutting edge of “reform” efforts that pit parents who don’t feel well served by the public schools against teachers’ unions and what is often seen as a heartless school bureaucracy.
A dramatic proposal that would create the first-ever statewide charter school district would siphon money out of the public schools into virtual schools and could cause rural schools to close. But after a massive public outcry, that piece of legislation is now in limbo.
Special ed vouchers will likely face the same fate.
These education fights hit particularly close to home for people
And it seems that the whole discussion of education has shifted after Walker’s attack on teachers in Wisconsin.
In fact, Walker’s overreach may have kicked off a total public turnaround on this issue.
Remember Jon Stewart’s brilliant spoofs on the attacks on “fat cat” teachers during the Wisconsin protests of a year ago?
After years of these attacks sponsored by the school reform movement, people are beginning to see efforts to privatize public schools for what they are: an attack on civil society.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Feingold and Wisconsin vs. Obama's Super PAC"