Unions oppose bill that would give special needs students more school options

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MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin lawmakers are discussing the possibility of creating a small voucher program targeted toward special-needs students, but the state’s teachers union is adamantly against it.

special-needsThe program was first introduced as part of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal. But it was cut from the budget as part of a compromise on expanding the state’s regular private school voucher program statewide, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Legislation is now expected to be re-introduced for special needs vouchers.  The teachers unions and public school advocates are already trying to shout down the idea over alleged fears that private schools lack the proper resources to handle special needs students.

The state’s teachers union is also upset because some students would leave the public school system for greener pastures, which could mean less money flowing to unionized schools and the unions themselves.

“It’s a battering ram at the schoolhouse doors,” said Christina Brey, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union.  “The idea that we’ll continue to see rewrites on legislation that has been dismissed shows a lack of respect for the will of the parents of special-needs children.

Brey contends special-needs families don’t want the opportunity to attend other schools. If that’s the case, what harm could the legislation possibly do?

Disability Rights Wisconsin Director Lisa Pugh is also against the idea of vouchers for special needs families because students could end up attending private schools that are not required to meet federal mandates listed in the “Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act” like public schools, the Journal Sentinel reports.

“We haven’t seen support for real accountability in the private school sector that would ensure that students with disabilities be protected,” Pugh told the newspaper.

There are a couple of problems with the opposition’s logic.

First, any proposed special needs voucher program would be entirely voluntary. Lawmakers are only considering the possibility of giving special needs parents more educational options for their children, which may be necessary if their local school districts don’t offer the types of programs their child requires.

Just because public schools are bound by federal regulations doesn’t mean they provide better or more effective instruction to special needs students.

Also, the legislation to be introduced is likely to require special needs families to first attempt to move their children to another public school through the state’s open enrollment program before they could be considered for a voucher, the Journal Sentinel reports.

In other words, families with special needs students would be required to exhaust all of their public school options before considering private schools.

Wisconsin state Rep. John Jagler is one of four lawmakers who are expected to introduce the “Wisconsin Special Needs Scholarship” bill today, and he’s also a special needs parent.

Jagler told the newspaper many special needs parents are content with the services of their local school district, “but the school exerts control in the educational setting, and if they don’t go forward with what’s expected of them, or if you can’t get the right teachers, a lot of times parents are stuck.”

Lawmakers tailored the bill to target those types of situations, he said.

“We started from scratch and really tried to address the concerns we’d heard over the years,” Jagler said.

Jagler and his colleagues want to ensure parents of special needs children have the opportunity to select a program that works well for their child, and there’s little doubt some parents would welcome that type of freedom.

The teachers union, however, is concerned about how the program might impact its dues revenue and control over public education, which really shouldn’t factor into the discussion at all.

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