Gov. Scott Walkerâ€™s proposal to create a voucher program for special needs students has sparked concerns from some legislators and parents that the choice policy would funnel money away from public school districts’ programs.
Walkerâ€™s proposed budget includes a new program that would give scholarships to special needs students to attend private schools of their choice. But moderate Republicans in the Senate joined the voices of opposition to the program last week.
Joanne Juhnke, chair of the statewide Stop Special Needs Vouchers group, said she and other parents are concerned because the vouchers would take money out of public schools. This would lead to fewer resources for the remaining special needs children in public schools, she said.
Because private schools can choose which students to admit, Juhnke said they would likely only choose those with “milder” disabilities. Students with more significant disabilities, she said, would be left in public schools.
â€śThe public schools are required to educate everyone, no matter the disability, and private schools donâ€™t have that mandate,â€ť Juhnke said.
She said the groupâ€™s top priority is to push for the proposal to be taken out of the state budget and put forward as a separate piece of legislation so it can be debated in public hearings.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, has similar concerns with the proposal, according to his spokesperson Todd Albaugh. Two other Republican senators said last week they oppose the special needs voucher program.
Albaugh said public schools would be left supporting students who cost the most to educate, leading to smaller school districts needing to cut programs in other areas, such as sports or arts.
â€ś[The proposal could lead to] private school systems taking those children with only mild or medium disabilities and leaving those with severe or profound disabilities in the public school system,â€ť Albaugh said.
He also noted while Walkerâ€™s larger plans of expanding voucher schools is aimed at a few school districts, this special needs scholarship program would be statewide.
A bill that created a similar program passed the Assembly in the last session but was not scheduled for a vote in the Senate.
Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, supported that bill when he worked for the former Assembly speakerâ€™s office. Jagler has a 15-year-old daughter with Down syndrome who attends a Watertown public school.
Although Jagler said he is pleased with the special needs programs in public schools, he said other parents may need to find services in other schools if the public school ones are not satisfactory.
â€śI know in talking with other parents that there are some peopleâ€¦that arenâ€™t getting the education that they want their child to have in the public school setting,â€ť Jagler said.
He added a child with a disability might get easily frustrated with a teacher and shut down. Jagler said that could be a problem if, as is the case in many public schools, the child only has one or two teachers for all their years at the school.
The special needs voucher program would open up more options to families, who know what is best for their child, Jagler said.
â€śAllowing parents to choose whatâ€™s best for their kid when it comes to policy is not only good policy, itâ€™s the right thing to do,â€ť Jagler said.