By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MAYVILLE – Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, left the door open for expansion of school choice for special needs students, saying the Senate will take a closer look at a controversial initiative that was left out of the Republican budget proposal this fall.
“We didn’t address the special needs question,” Fitzgerald told reporters on Thursday in Mayville. “I think the reason for that is because there’s two different approaches. One is to address it with a scholarship, a voucher. The other is to address it with open enrollment.”
Gov. Scott Walker had proposed a scholarship or voucher program to allow up to 5 percent of the state’s special education students to enroll in private, public or charter schools at no cost to parents. The provision was removed from the budget as part of the education deal struck between Walker and on-the-fence Republican senators. That deal resulted in a $150 per-pupil increase in school aid and a revamped statewide expansion of the private school voucher program.
Walker said Thursday he would honor that deal, which caps voucher expansion to 500 students next year and 1,000 students the following year. Currently, Milwaukee and Racine are the only districts that have voucher programs.
The governor had initially tied voucher expansion to school districts with at least two schools with subpar performance on the new statewide report card evaluation. That deal, though, left special needs students out of the circle.
Wisconsin Reporter previously reported on the case of Susan Giaimo, a Marquette University professor, mother of a special needs student and advocate of the special needs scholarship.
Giaimo brought formal complaint to the state Department of Public Instruction after battling with the Wauwatosa School District for five years to get district officials to appropriately implement her autistic son’s Individualized Education Plan. Later, she said her son was inappropriately physically restrained by a teacher’s aide, which caused her to keep him home from school for weeks after the incident.
The aide admitted to police to hugging her son and pounding on his chest similar to a Tarzan motion, but not with the intent of hurting him. The school district fired the aide for swearing in front of children, but did not mention the physical altercation in its dismissal letter. DPI decided the physical restraint was not inappropriate, even though it violated Giaimo’s son’s IEP.
Giaimo said she has since put her house up for sale, with the intention of moving to a new school district.
“This process has exposed the failure of the school district and DPI to follow the law and protect children with disabilities from abuse and to safeguard their rights. The system is broken,” she said.
According to a Legislative Audit Bureau report, 3,235 special needs students switched districts through open enrollment in 2011 – 9.4 percent of all students who participated in the open enrollment program that year.
But school districts don’t have to accept open enrollment applicants and resident school districts don’t have to allow the student to leave.
“There are still districts that won’t accept special needs students because of the costs and the care and curriculum associated with that,” Fitzgerald said.
Disability rights advocates, who opposed the scholarship, are also trying to change open enrollment rules.
“We are looking at ways to make the open enrollment law more usable for kids with special needs,” Monica Murphy, managing attorney for schools and civil rights at Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office, previously told Wisconsin Reporter. “They are covered under it, but there’s a lot of difficulty. It’s not quite as available for kids with special needs as regular kids.”
Parents of special needs students who opposed the scholarship argued that the proposal deserved a public hearing and to go through the legislative process.
Fitzgerald said it would be part of “a lot of trailer bills from the budget” this fall, a series of bills expected to include legislation to deal with high capacity wells and proposed medical assistance programs.
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