WILL Blog | Special Needs Children Deserve School Choice

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

The following blog post was authored by WILL Research Director, Will Flanders, PhD, and WILL Vice President for Policy, CJ Szafir

Wisconsin’s model for educating special needs children is outdated, lagging far behind other states, and does a disservice to parents. One way to help them would be to fix the Special Needs Scholarship Program, i.e. Wisconsin’s special needs school voucher, which is full of burdensome restrictions, is perplexingly designed to keep kids out of the program. The Joint Finance Committee can do that – but time is running out for them to act.

While some public schools do an excellent job at educating children with special needs, others do not. This is because the one-size-fits-all public school model simply cannot provide the best education for all children with special needs. They have unique needs and challenges. And sometimes, a private school can offer a better education for those children. The current model is also failing to provide the best education possible. Wisconsin ranks 19th out of 50 states and DC on test scores for special needs children.

This could be one of the reasons parents of special needs children want school choice. Since 2012, on average, every year, about 5,780 special needs students apply for the Open Enrollment Program to attend a public school outside of where they live (i.e. Public school choice).

In 2015, in an attempt to solve some of Wisconsin’s special education woes, the state legislature created the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP). The SNSP would give parents of special needs children a $12,000 voucher to attend a private school of their choosing. At the start of the program, there was a lot of excitement with 26 schools and 235 children participating.

But after the first year of the SNSP, new restrictions kicked in which make it unusable for many parents. In order to receive a voucher, parents must apply for public school open enrollment – and be denied. This requirement is completely nonsensical. Think of it like this: the state is forcing parents to apply for a public school – which they have no intention or desire of attending – and hope that the public school denies them. In addition, children must have attended a public school the year before going to a private school with the SNSP. Perplexingly, the SNSP is of no use to those children already exercising school choice. In Milwaukee, there are 2,000 to 4,000 disabled children in the MPCP with either parents or the schools spending significant resources to educate those children.

The SNSP is also funded at a relatively low amount and some special needs children require more resources than $12,000. Consider that the state funds the SNSP at only a slightly higher amount than children without special needs at Milwaukee Public Schools ($10,431).

All told, Wisconsin lags far behind other states in giving parents of special needs children school choice. With less restrictions and regulations, nearly 15% of all eligible children in Florida use a special needs voucher in Florida’s highly touted McKay Scholarship program. That number is less than 1% in Wisconsin. Other states, like Arizona, give children with special needs an Education Savings Account so that the parent is in total control of where to spend the money.

A new policy brief released today by WILL shows that the need for reform is great. Currently, there are more than 116,000 students in the state diagnosed with some sort of disability. This represents more than 13% of all students in the state.

Special needs children deserve better than the status quo. Let’s hope that the Joint Finance Committee takes the necessary steps eliminate harsh restrictions and allow more parents to use the SNSP.

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