Wisconsin students with disabilities and unique needs are sometimes unable to secure what, in their parents’ judgment, is an appropriate education at a public school. The courts and legislators have recognized that federal funds must be available for educating such students in private schools instead.
There is, nevertheless, a large disparity between the formally reported percentage of children in Wisconsin public schools who have disabilities (approximately 14 percent) and the percentage of children in private schools who have disabilities (less than 2 percent).1
This has led some to contend that private schools are not receptive to children with special needs.
A survey of private school administrators conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute as part of the research for this paper dispels that myth. Private school administrators say both that they educate more children with disabilities (about 6 percent) than official Department of Public Instruction numbers reflect, and that would like to teach even more.
There are myriad, inter-related reasons why they can’t or don’t. Denials of funding are not uncommon, and what funding does exist is often inadequate. The system for determining which children receive assistance is not uniform. Public school officials are not always conducting the “child find” process in a timely manner. There is, in fact, at least the appearance of an inherent conflict of interest in requiring public school districts to identify and evaluate children in private schools who will receive federal funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) because this money is, in essence, subtracted from resources otherwise available to the school district.
A new process is needed — one that recognizes each child’s individuality and right to money and services, a system in essence wherein the money “follows the child” in an amount sufficient to address his or her needs. Concurrently, Wisconsin should consider the possibility of creating new local education agencies (known as LEAs) other than local public school districts to help process federal funds, including IDEA funds, for at least some children with disabilities in private schools.
The days of children with disabilities being relegated to the last row of the classroom or, even worse, shunted away into institutions or alternative schools, ostracized, ignored or forgotten are, thankfully, long gone. Federal law unambiguously entitles each of them to a “free, appropriate public education” through the age of 21, the right, in essence, to learn and better themselves as any child might, to interact with their peers and seek happy, productive and fulfilling lives.
Our courts and legislators have recognized, however, that parents and public school officials often differ over what constitutes an “appropriate” public school education for a child with a disability. As a result, there are provisions designed to assure that children with disabilities whose parents have chosen to place them in private schools2 — while they do not have the same absolute right to public resources — are assured of “equitable participation” in some federal funding and services.3
There is logic behind the law. Interpretations of the capabilities and needs of children with disabilities often differ. Debates over what is best for any given child can be contentious and prolonged. Parents who believe their children are not receiving an appropriate public school education, but who have limited financial resources, would not be able to find their child an alternative in a private school if they stood only a remote chance of recouping any of the costs — and, even then, not until some distant point years down the road long after the child has grown and moved beyond the schools in question.
Still, the situation is a far cry from perfect.
Even federal law, while encouraging the use of federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act dollars to help educate such private school children as a group, currently accords them no rights as individuals beyond an evaluation. Each individual child’s chance of receiving public funding or services while enrolled in a private school, even if identified as having a disability, is dependent upon specific circumstances, the decisions and actions of the local public school district in which he or she lives, and the amount of money available — something in and of itself determined by local public school officials through a federally mandated process known as “child find.”
IDEA funds, moreover, are only one public revenue source available for educating public school students with disabilities. Students with disabilities in public schools can also benefit from local property taxes, Medicaid School-based Services, general state aid and state general education categorical aid — options that do not exist for such children in private schools in Wisconsin. This paper will examine the law currently used to determine the amount of funding set aside for students with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools in Wisconsin. It will consider whether public school officials are adhering to the provisions of the “child find” law that is meant to both identify children with disabilities in private schools and make sure an equitable amount of IDEA funding is available for them.
It will explore whether local public school officials are best suited to help determine how much funding is diverted from public schools to private schools. It will gauge the level of private school interest in educating children with disabilities as well as their ability to currently do so, and it will determine whether there might be a better process or funding mechanism for Wisconsin to help children with disabilities reach their full potential.
Who Are These Children With Disabilities and How Are They Identified?
They are, in sum, children of all aptitudes, ages and challenges who, by the definitions set forth in Wisconsin’s Administrative Code, have an impairment that “adversely affects (their) educational performance.”4
Local school officials are responsible for finding such children in their public school district, including children with disabilities attending private schools. District officials also have a legal obligation to evaluate such children and determine if they have a disability in one of 11 possible “areas of impairment”:
- Speech or language
- Traumatic brain injury
- Cognitive (significantly sub-average intellectual functioning that exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior)
- Orthopedic (including congenital anomalies such as a clubfoot; impairments caused by disease, such as poliomyelitis; and impairments from other causes, such as cerebral palsy, amputations and fractures)
- Specific learning disabilities that may manifest themselves in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or perform mathematical calculations. This category includes dyslexia and developmental aphasia, for example.
- Emotional and behavioral disabilities that adversely affect a child’s academic progress, social relationships, personal adjustment, classroom adjustment, self-care or vocational skills
- Autism, a developmental disability significantly affecting a child’s social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication
- Other health impairments that limit strength or alertness, including heart conditions, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, diabetes or acquired injuries to the brain caused by internal occurrences or degenerative conditions
- Significant developmental delays in the areas of physical development, cognition, communication, or social-emotional or adaptive development.
How Many Students Does DPI Identify as Having Disabilities?
Throughout the 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in the number of public school students in Wisconsin identified as disabled, from 102,000 in 1994 to over 125,000 in 2000.
In 2001, the state changed the “eligibilty criteria” for many of the disability categories, however, and since then, the number of individuals in public schools between the ages of 4 and 21 found to have disabilities and to be eligible for IDEA funding has remained relatively static.5
In 2011, the figure was 123,825, according to the October 1, 2011, “child count,” or 14 percent of all public school students.6
In comparison, there were a total of 1,944 students with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools in Wisconsin who were classified as having disabilities on that same October day in 2011, according to the Department of Public Instruction — less than 2 percent.
Total IDEA “flow-through entitlements” in Wisconsin during the 2011-’12 fiscal year, meanwhile, amounted to approximately $180 million dollars.7
Funding is not tied to individual children and some — even if eligible — may receive none at all. But, as a further illustration of how much is available, if that amount flowed through equally to each of the 125,769 children with disabilities (123,825 + 1,944), it would amount to $1,430 each.
Students With Disabilities and Private Schools
Why the Big Gap Between Numbers of Kids With Disabilities in Public Versus Private Schools?
Wisconsin parents who want their children educated in a public school have, theoretically at least, more than one option. If a child is not receiving an appropriate education in a particular public school, his or her parents can attempt to enroll the child in a different public school through open enrollment — though such transfers are by no means assured.
The “nonresident district” the child wants to enter may deny the transfer if administrators there say there is not enough space or if specific special education services needed by the child are not available. The child’s “resident district” — which must directly compensate the nonresident district the child transfers into for the cost of educating the student — may likewise deny the transfer if it causes an “undue financial burden.”8
What constitutes an undue burden varies from place to place and is largely dependent on the type of disability. The average cost to educate a child with a disability enrolled in a Wisconsin public school is $13,219, based on 2009-’10 figures, but it can cost as much as $117,000 for just one child, and the cost of services may be more expensive in one district than in another. 9
Denials are somewhat subjective since there is no statewide formula or criterion used to determine when open enrollment transfers are approved or rejected. Decisions, rather, are made by local decision-makers and based on local criteria such as cost, the district’s total economic circumstances, class size limits and even enrollment projections, meaning that some seats may be reserved for expected growth in future years and, thus, left unused in the meantime. Denials of open enrollment applications cannot be arbitrary or unreasonable and must be defensible if questioned by the Department of Public Instruction. However, because the criteria differ from place to place, decisions can be difficult to either predict or challenge.
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a lawyer who was for many years the managing attorney of the schools and civil rights team at Disability Rights Wisconsin, addressed the issue during a public workshop in early December 2012 sponsored by WI FACETS, the Wisconsin Family Assistance Center for Education, Training & Support:10
“Somebody recently asked me if there is a standard for (the number of seats available during open enrollment). I don’t believe there is and I don’t think DPI will question it (the local district’s statement of how many seats are available), so one district may say, ‘We have 20 seats in the classroom.’ Another may say, ‘We’ve got 35.’ That’s local decision-making.
“We don’t see that (denial based on lack of seats) a whole lot except I would say we see it occasionally for children with disabilities if you have, for example, a child with autism and you’re trying to get your child into a specific autism program in another school district and they want to keep their student-teacher ratio low and they have six kids in it already and say, ‘Sorry we don’t have room for a seventh.’ That happens occasionally.
“The bigger reason why children with disabilities are turned down is due to a phrase in the law that has been there since the beginning called undue financial burden,” said Spitzer-Resnick. “If it will be an undue financial burden for your home district — because they have to send their money over to the other district — to lose your child . . . then you can be denied.”
In addition to those children who are denied an open enrollment transfer because of economic or space constraints, there are others for whom such transfers within public schools are simply not possible or logical for a variety of reasons. For instance, parents are sometimes responsible for transporting students with disabilities to and from schools attended through open enrollment and might be required to bear the cost.
In sum, even in a state that has open enrollment, students with disabilities and unique needs — for myriad reasons — are sometimes unable to secure what, in their parents’ judgment, is an appropriate education at a public school. The courts have recognized that public funds must be available for educating such students in private schools instead. But just as such individual students can be denied an open enrollment transfer to another public school, they can also — despite the law mandating equitable participation — be denied public funding or services by local public school administrators.
In Wisconsin, such denials of public funding or services are not uncommon.
The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute surveyed over 400 private Wisconsin schools in October and November 2012, and received responses from administrators at 245 schools with a combined total enrollment of approximately 51,650 students, or 41 percent of the total student population in private schools throughout the state. (There are over 800 private schools in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Public Instruction, including many that have fewer than 20 students. The schools that responded to WPRI’s survey average over 200 students per school and include most of the larger private schools in the state.)
When asked, “Has your local public school district ever declined to provide public funding for a child with a disability who wanted to enroll in your school?” 27 percent of the private schools replied yes. (Thirty-three percent responded no and the rest either were not sure or did not answer.)
Similarly, respondents were asked, “How often have children in your school been formally determined to have a disability but been unable to obtain public funding or publicly funded services?” Exactly half said occasionally or frequently, while half said rarely or never.
How often have children in your school been formally determined to have a disability but been unable to obtain public funding or publicly funded services?
In the same survey, private school administrators expressed a desire to educate more children with disabilities. Asked, “Would your school accept more children with disabilities if you had more money or resources to educate them?” 51 percent responded yes and another 33 percent said probably. Only 3 percent said it was unlikely and only 1 percent said no.
Would your school accept more children with disabilities if you had more money or resources to educate them?
While the majority stated unequivocally that they would like the opportunity to educate more children with disabilities, there is a logical explanation for the large percentage (33 percent) that responded probably. Asked in a separate question if they believe “children with disabilities are often better off in public schools or private schools?” 91 percent replied that it “depends on the child.” Individual children with disabilities are often unique in their capabilities, circumstances and needs. While many might thrive in a particular public school for various reasons, many others are better off in a particular private school. The survey indicates that the vast majority of private school administrators recognize this.
Do you believe children with disabilities are often better off in public schools or private schools?
Similarly, when asked, “Do you feel that your school is equipped to accept students with disabilities?” 85 percent said it depends on the specific need. Asked to elaborate in writing on the types of needs they are best and least able to address, 189 of the school administrators responded in a wide variety of ways. Some said it was impossible to generalize and that the ability to help depends more on the severity of the disability than the type. However, many respondents said they are best able to assist children with learning disabilities in areas such as speech or reading, dyslexia and some physical issues including hearing impairments. Many also indicated that their ability to help severely disabled children is hampered by building constraints such as a lack of elevators or a shortage of staff or other resources.
Do you feel that your school is equipped to accept students with disabilities?
Why Do Parents Sometimes Prefer Private Schools?
Parents of children with disabilities often stress that their children have unique needs that sometimes are better met in a private school. Specific reasons often range from class size to safety to curriculum to approaches to learning. Some parents also cite a variety of other reasons, including a preference or need for more specialized help and individual attention, more interaction with students outside special education programs, greater academic challenges and a different school environment or culture.11
Problems With the Current Situation
Because Wisconsin children have such a wide array of disabilities and goals, there can be no universal measurement of educational success, and many of the measurements that exist for individual children are not strictly academic. But under the current system, parents who feel their children with disabilities are too often failing to get the education they need to succeed in living productive, fulfilling lives have some quantifiable justification. Just 36 percent of Wisconsin public school 10th graders with disabilities who take either regular or alternate statewide assessments are proficient in reading, for example, according to 2010-’11 statistics; only 31 percent are proficient in math. Many of these students — 56 percent — are educated in regular classrooms for 80 percent or more of the day.12
How Many Students With Disabilities Are Private Schools Actually Educating?
As noted above, in addition to sometimes having difficulty securing services or funding for children with disabilities who want to enroll, most private schools have at least one child (some say they have dozens or even scores) who are already enrolled and, in the estimation of private school leaders, have a disability in one of the 11 categories specified under Wisconsin Administrative Code, but who do not receive any public funds specifically meant to assist children with disabilities.
WPRI ascertained the extent of this phenomenon by asking two different questions of each school:
The state of Wisconsin recognizes 11 different categories of disabilities: visual, hearing, speech or language, traumatic brain injury, cognitive, orthopedic (including congenital anomalies such as clubfoot, impairments from cerebral palsy, amputations, etc.), specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia and developmental aphasia, emotional and behavioral disabilities, autism, other health impairments that limit strength or alertness (such as tuberculosis, asthma, epilepsy, lead poisoning, diabetes) and significant developmental delays. How many students at your school in your estimation currently have a disability in any of these categories that affects learning?
How many students currently enrolled at your school have a formally identified disability that affects learning, and for which publicly funded services are being provided?
Administrators at 235 schools answered both questions.
In response to the first question, the 235 administrators estimated that their schools, cumulatively, have 3,124 students with disabilities that affect learning. In response to the second question, the same 235 administrators estimated that they cumulatively have only 1,163 students in their schools with disabilities that affect learning and for which publicly funded services are being provided.
In other words, for every private school child formally diagnosed with a disability who is receiving publicly funded services, there are another 1.7 children, on average, who private school administrators believe also have a disability that affects learning but who are not receiving any publicly funded help for one reason or another. That is an average.
Twenty-three percent of the private schools surveyed stated that all of the children believed to have disabilities are receiving publicly funded assistance. Seventy-seven percent have, in their estimation, at least some children with disabilities who are not receiving public help or funding. At those schools that are part of the 77 percent, for every child formally identified with a disability who receives publicly funded services, there are two more students with disabilities who are not receiving publicly funded help, private school administrators believe.
All told, based on responses of the 245 school administrators statewide to the question regarding how many students currently in their school — regardless of whether they are publicly funded or not — have a disability that affects learning, over 6 percent of children in private schools in Wisconsin fit that description in the eyes of private school officials. In sum, private school officials believe there are many more students with disabilities in their schools than are typically counted or reported, and most say they would like the opportunity and ability to educate more.
Six percent is a statewide estimate. Some schools in Milwaukee have a considerably higher percentage, according to, “Special Education and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” a report by Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte and David J. Fleming. The actual percentage of Milwaukee Parental Choice Program students with disabilities likely falls between 7.5 percent and 14.6 percent versus 19 percent for Milwaukee Public Schools, according to the study that looked specifically at 1,475 students who had switched between choice schools and public schools and compared whether they had been classified as having a disability in either or both. A total of 2.4 percent were assigned a disability classification when in MPCP but not while in MPS while 10.9 percent who were not given a disability classification when in MPCP were classified as having one in MPS. Overall, 4.6 percent were classified at some point in MPCP as having a disability while 13.2 percent received such a classification when in MPS. The statistics suggest that the same students were approximately three times more likely to be classified as having a disability when in MPS than when in MPCP.13
It is beyond the scope of this paper to determine whether public school administrators throughout Wisconsin typically believe they, too, have students with disabilities not formally identified, i.e., more than the 14 percent identified statewide by DPI. Private school administrators, though, believe children in public schools are more apt to be classified as having disabilities than students in private schools. Asked, “Are there children in your school who, in your estimation, would be considered disabled if they attended a public school but are not considered disabled at your school?” 40 percent of private school administrators said yes and another 25 percent said probably.
Are there children in your school who, in your estimation, would be considered disabled if they attended a public school but are not considered disabled at your school?
Why Aren’t More Children With Disabilities Receiving Publicly Funded Services in Private Schools?
According to school administrators, some parents of children with disabilities do not want their children “labeled” as having a disability, or simply do not want to be part of a process for funding they either don’t understand or don’t believe will be helpful. Sixty-eight percent of private school administrators surveyed said they “occasionally” have parents or guardians of children in their school decline to consent to the administration of tests or the evaluation of children by public school district representatives charged with identifying students with disabilities. (Twenty-eight percent of private school administrators said parents never decline and 5 percent said they frequently decline.)
Responses by private school administrators to the WPRI survey also suggest, however, that money and services are not always available to children with disabilities. And private school administrators believe that public school officials are not always complying with laws that give them the responsibility of conducting “child find” activities. In addition, both the survey and interviews with private school administrators raise questions about whether the process itself is flawed.
How Is the “Child Find” Process Supposed to Work?
Child find is a federally mandated process that gives responsibility for finding, identifying and evaluating children with disabilities — including those attending private schools — to local education agencies, or LEAs. LEAs do not necessarily have to be local school districts, although that is almost always the case and even the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction often uses the terms interchangeably.14
In addition to finding, identifying and evaluating all children with disabilities, LEAs — usually districts — are also responsible for ensuring equitable participation by private school students.
“The child find process must be designed to ensure the equitable participation of parentally placed private school students and an accurate count of them,” according to the Department of Public Instruction. This is important because, as DPI itself has pointed out, an accurate count of the number of eligible private school students enrolled by their parents in private schools located in the school district is needed to calculate the proportionate share of IDEA funds the school district must expend the following fiscal year on services for parentally placed private school students with disabilities.
Virtually anyone who reasonably believes a child has a disability — including teachers, physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers or parents — may refer the child to local school district officials responsible for special education evaluations. But ultimate responsibility for locating and identifying — and evaluating — these children annually rests, by law, with the public school district.
According to the Wisconsin DPI:
“On the third Friday in September of each year, the school district must determine the number of parentally placed students with disabilities attending private elementary and secondary schools in the school district in two age ranges — 4 through 5 and 4 through 21. The counts include both children who receive school district special education and/or related services and those who do not. Because the counts are used to determine the amount the school district must spend in the subsequent fiscal year, it is important that child find activities be designed to ensure accurate counts of students on the third Friday in September.”15
The WPRI survey of private schools indicates that, in many instances, public school officials are not conducting the child find process in a timely manner. When respondents to the survey were asked how often public school districts seek information from their schools about children with disabilities as part of the child find process, 56 percent said annually or more than once a year, 27 percent said never and 17 percent said occasionally but less than once a year.
Public school districts conduct activities to locate, identify and evaluate children with disabilities. This is sometimes known as “child find.” Whether you know it by that name or not, how often do public school officials approach your school seeking information about children with disabilities as part of such a process?
Some private school administrators are likely more proactive or successful in making sure children are counted than others. But the law gives public school officials ultimate responsibility, and “finding” children who potentially have disabilities is only the first step in the process. Public school officials also have a legal obligation to evaluate them. In an effort to determine how many students, in general, are being evaluated, WPRI asked private school survey respondents how often public school officials conduct evaluations of individual children thought to have disabilities in their schools, 48 percent responded “in every instance,” while 45 percent said “in some cases” and 7 percent said “never.”
Answer this question only if you have children with disabilities enrolled at your school. How often do public school officials conduct evaluations of individual children thought to have disabilities in your private school?
There are various reasons any one individual child with a potential disability might not be evaluated, ranging from reluctance on the part of his or her parents to a breakdown in the “child find” process. Of those children in private schools in Wisconsin who are evaluated, however, about half are found eligible for publicly funded services. For instance, between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, there were 1,433 students who were referred for the first time for initial evaluations and who by the end of that time period were enrolled by their parents in private schools, according to Stephanie Petska, the director of special education at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Of those 1,433, 729, or 51 percent, were found eligible for special education or related services.16
If a child is found eligible for special education and chooses to enroll in a public school, officials then develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the parent decides to keep the child in the private school, on the other hand, the public schools need not develop an IEP. Private school students are instead — after consultation with private school representatives and parents or guardians — given a “services plan” developed by public school educators in consultation with private school officials and parents. Many services plans will include measurable annual goals; a statement of the special education, related services, or supplementary aids and services that will be received; the amount, anticipated frequency, location and duration of the services; and a statement of how the student’s progress toward the annual goals will be measured. To the extent appropriate, the services plan includes IEP elements, but it is not an IEP and is often much less extensive. Ultimately, it is up to the public school district officials to determine the scope of the plan based upon what services — and how much money — is available that year for children enrolled in private schools by their parents. If there is not enough money in a given year, there will be children with disabilities who do not receive services.
Are Private School Students Participating Equitably?
The IDEA allocations to local school districts are awarded according to a formula that uses a base amount from the December 1998 Child Count. Eighty-five percent of all new dollars since then are awarded based on numbers of students as a whole and another 15 percent on poverty. For the last four years, 2009-’10 through 2012-’13, the total allocation for the state has been between $180 million and $183 million. Identifying more children with disabilities would have no effect on the allocation. It is essentially pre-determined through a formula, although it can vary slightly from year-to-year.17
A school district is neither required to provide services to every parentally placed private school student with a disability nor required to spend a certain amount on each of these students who are served. But, under federal IDEA law, a “proportionate share” of IDEA money must be made available to children with disabilities placed in private schools as a group. In other words, public school districts must set aside for children in private schools a proportionate share of the federal IDEA money they receive and would — were no private school children found to have disabilities — have spent on children in their own public schools instead.
The following is an example of how the proportionate share is calculated, according to DPI’s Information Update Bulletin 6.03:18
“There are 300 eligible children with disabilities enrolled in the Flintstone School District and 20 eligible parentally placed private school children with disabilities enrolled in private elementary schools and secondary schools located in the (district) for a total of 320 eligible public and private school children with disabilities (note: proportionate share for parentally placed private school children is based on total children eligible, not children served). The number of eligible parentally placed private school children with disabilities (20) divided by the total number of eligible public and private school children with disabilities (320) indicates that 6.25 percent of the (district’s) subgrant must be spent for the group of eligible parentally placed children with disabilities enrolled in private elementary schools and secondary schools located in the (district). Flintstone School District receives $152,500 in federal flow-through funds. Therefore, the (district) must spend $9,531.25 on special education or related services for the group of parentally placed private school children with disabilities enrolled in private elementary schools and secondary schools located in the district.”19
All school districts, according to DPI, must report to DPI the number of parentally placed private school students evaluated, the number of parentally placed private school students determined to be children with disabilities under IDEA, and the number of children provided equitable services on an annual basis. When WPRI requested a district-by-district breakdown of the number of children with disabilities placed by parents in private schools, DPI responded with only a partial list and said that “it has been long-standing policy to not release data for groups of fewer than six individual records” in order to “protect individual student identities.”
A DPI representative stated that the department understood that WPRI’s request was only for numbers in each district and not names of individual students, but declined nevertheless because, in the department’s estimation, “there may be other data sources out there that you might access, and that combined with what we may have (if we were to have released numbers only), could lead to the identification of individuals.”
DPI did provide a partial list. But the data for most districts, because of the rationale stated above, are not included and it is, therefore, not possible to determine what most districts are reporting to the state or if DPI’s records are complete. Even if all districts are accurately reporting the number of children with disabilities in private schools, however, the more relevant question, given the survey results, might be whether all such children are being “found” in the first place — and whether those who are found are receiving the services they need or any services at all.
Again, asked if “your local public school district (has) ever declined to provide public funding for a child with a disability who wanted to enroll in your school?” 27 percent of the private schools replied yes. Similarly, respondents were asked, “How often have children in your school been formally determined to have a disability but been unable to obtain public funding or publicly funded services?” Exactly half said occasionally or frequently, while half said rarely or never.
In an effort to flesh out the survey and the variety of perspectives and experiences of respondents, WPRI also conducted follow-up interviews with some private school administrators.
Stories of Individual Schools
There are 424 public school districts in Wisconsin and over 800 private schools that range in size from fewer than 10 to well over 1,000 students. The students in any one of those schools may have disabilities that fall anywhere along a wide spectrum of mild to severe physical, cognitive and emotional impairments. The WPRI survey shows that teachers and administrators in those schools, similarly, have an array of experiences with and perspectives about how Wisconsin is currently adhering to its obligations to children with disabilities. In addition to responding in writing on a portion of the survey, some school administrators were interviewed in follow-up conversations seeking further details about their experiences educating children with disabilities.
One principal of a small, religious elementary school with extensive experience in both public and private schools, for instance, said her students do receive the IDEA funded services, including the help of a public school teacher, to which they are entitled.
“I have found in both (private schools I have worked in) … an excellent working relationship (with public school officials), but I have to tell you what I think is a big part of the reason. I know the rules. I know the public school rules. We can speak the same language. … I know what they must do, and they do it,” she said.
She said she trusts the public school administrators. At the same time, she is proactive in making sure students with disabilities get the services they need.
Like some other private school administrators, she said sometimes a “mistrust” of public school administrators and a feeling of “Well, the public schools won’t do anything anyway,” get in the way. There can also be a “lack of knowledge” on the part of private school administrators regarding what’s required of public schools, she said.
In other districts, meanwhile, knowing the rules and being proactive are not enough.
“I believe there is a significant under-reporting of the number of students in need of special services,” said a private school administrator in Milwaukee.
He has seen no evidence that it is intentional on the part of public school officials who might want to keep resources in the public system rather than see them diverted to private schools. Rather, he sees “true professionals trying to do the job who are as frustrated as we are.”
But, he also said, “We pretty much have to beat on doors to get them to find kids” with disabilities.
Teachers or school officials who would like a child to be evaluated are instructed to call a number at the Milwaukee Public Schools that is “almost never answered by a live person,” and it is sometimes a month or longer before the phone call is returned, he said. Parents who have much more authority than school officials in the process might get their calls returned sooner, he added, but sometimes have to be “recruited” to shepherd their children through “child find.” He says that the assessments that are performed are good, but is far less complimentary of the rest of the process.
Services plans are “difficult to get,” he said. And even if a student gets a services plan, “that does not mean they are getting services,” he added. It often simply means that the child is on a waiting list. For example, he said, a child might be told that he or she qualifies for two days a week of speech therapy but will be put on a waiting list for anything else. Or the child might qualify but not get any help at all.
The lack of services, he said, then leads to another long-term problem. IDEA money is directed to private schools based on the number of children found eligible, whether they receive services or not. But children must be re-evaluated on a periodic basis and, if parents are not receiving the services their kids have already been found eligible for, the parents or guardians will often see no reason to have them re-evaluated. As a result, they lose eligibility and are no longer counted. As the number of children “found” through child find decreases, so does the pool of money available not just for them but for children with disabilities as a group.
Another principal of a medium-size school in western Wisconsin said there have been no problems with evaluations, and the school’s early-childhood program has had a consistent level of service. But resources are short for older children.
She estimates that in her school, perhaps 12 children in K-8 and six preschoolers have disabilities that affect learning. About half of those have service plans. The per-pupil “proportionate share” that determines the amount of services offered to those students, she said, averages approximately $1,260 a year — not enough to pay for the services the kids need.
She believes her staff could make the money available go further than it does in the public school.
Alternative Approaches to Delivering Special Education in Wisconsin
What Other States Are Doing
There are currently eight states that have programs that provide vouchers or scholarships or tax credits to the families of over 30,000 students with disabilities: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah. Florida’s program, the John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program, is both the oldest and — with over 24,000 students — the largest. 20
McKay Scholarships are equal to the amount the student would have received in the public school to which the student is assigned or the amount of the private school’s tuition and fees, whichever is less. The maximum scholarship during the 2011-’12 school year was $18,529, and average scholarship was $6,849. Polling by the Manhattan Institute in 2003 found that parents whose children received McKay Scholarships were much more satisfied with their experiences in private schools than they were with their experiences in the public schools.21
Proposal in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin at present, there are no such programs for students with disabilities enrolled in private schools by their parents.
However, on March 13, 2012, the state Assembly passed a bill that would have provided scholarships for up to 5 percent of students with disabilities to attend either private schools or public schools outside their districts. Known as the Special Needs Scholarship Program, it would have been worth an estimated average of $13,000 per pupil.
A lengthy fiscal analysis by the Department of Public Instruction was unable to determine the potential cost and laid out multiple scenarios dependent upon variables such as whether children would transfer to new public schools or private schools and whether “new” schools would be in the same district geographically as the prior schools.22 In general, public schools from which students would be transferring would lose state aid and the state would give scholarship money to schools, either public or private, receiving the children. The DPI analysis assumes that federal IDEA funding would still be available, although how it might flow through to a school would depend on whether the school the student transfers into is public or private and where it is located.
The bill died in the state Senate, although a similar proposal could be reintroduced.
Students with disabilities in Wisconsin have unique and often complex talents, aptitudes and needs and — as any two human beings might — differ greatly from one to another. And yet, the law that is supposed to assure federal funding for students with special needs often, essentially, recognizes them only as a group. This has led to a system that is in some respects well-intended but leaves many individual students without recognition, without the services they deserve, and without the same chance to better themselves that is available to other children.
Given the complexity and uniqueness of each child, it is not surprising that a family doesn’t always find the most appropriate education at the closest public school. Federal law — and to some extent the state of Wisconsin — acknowledges this reality by at least theoretically providing both an opportunity to attend another public school through open enrollment and the promise of some IDEA funding should the family decide a private school is more appropriate.
Unfortunately, the promise is currently too often an empty one. Individual students can easily be denied the opportunity to “open enroll,” and, according to a survey of 245 private school administrators, these students too often fail to receive any special education funding at all.
There are numerous reasons for that, including the reluctance of some parents of children with disabilities to accept help. But private school administrators are clear that children and families that do want help are too often denied it because they are not counted as individuals or because their “group” has already been given what the law says it deserves.
For every private school child formally identified with a disability who is receiving publicly funded services there are another 1.7 children, on average, who private school administrators believe also have a disability that affects learning but who are not receiving any publicly funded help at all.
Moreover, even when they do receive some IDEA funding, it is often too little to fund the services they need.
Private schools are sometimes accused of “skimming the best students” off the top from the public schools and not welcoming students with disabilities who might require more attention and resources. The WPRI survey suggests the opposite. Asked, “Would your school accept more children with disabilities if you had more money or resources to educate them?” 51 percent responded yes and another 33 percent said probably. Some of the schools, in fact, see educating children who might need more help as a fundamental part of their mission — yet one they cannot currently fulfill.
There is no indication that public school officials are intentionally impeding the success of individual children with disabilities in private schools. But the current system gives public school officials an implicit, often direct responsibility for the success of a group of students in private schools who — due to the bureaucracy and complexity of the system as well as a dynamic where resources that go to a distant group of children with disabilities in private schools are taken away from nearby individual children in public schools — too often don’t get the resources and funding to which they are legally entitled.
There is, at a minimum, the possibility of an inherent conflict of interest in requiring public school districts to identify and evaluate children in private schools who receive IDEA funding only if it is, in essence, subtracted from resources otherwise available in the local public school district in which public school district officials work. Local school districts, it might be noted, need not necessarily assume the role of the LEA. Wisconsin might consider the possibility of creating new LEAs that help process funds, including IDEA funds, for at least some children in private school.
Even when the current system works as intended, there is often not enough money to provide children with disabilities the appropriate education. A new process is needed, one that recognizes each child’s individuality and right to money and services, in essence a system wherein the funding “follows the child” in an amount able to address his or her needs.
The days of children with disabilities being relegated to the last row of the classroom or, even worse, shunted away into institutions or alternative schools are indeed long gone. But the day when each child is encouraged to sit in the front row is still not here. Many children are still all too often denied their right to an appropriate education and recognition as individuals given a fair chance of leading productive and fulfilling lives.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction WINSS data on Enrollment by Disability,
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Demographic Data on Public School and Private School enrollment , http://winss.dpi.wi.gov/winss_dm-demographics .
(Note: There were a total of 1,944 students with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools in Wisconsin who were classified as having disabilities in October of 2011, according to Department of Public Instruction data supplied by Stephanie Petska, Stephanie Petska, Director of Special Education, Division for Learning Support Equity and Advocacy. There are almost one million children who attend preschool, elementary school or high school in the Badger State: 870,470 in public schools and another 124,668 in private and tribal schools, based on 2011 enrollment. While approximately 14% of public school children are identified as having disabilities. (123,825/870,470), the percentage of private school children with disabilities is less than 2% (1,944 /124,668).
Students who are placed in private schools by the state have different rights from students placed in private schools by their parents. A very small number of schools taking part in the survey (less than 1 percent) say that they frequently have students with disabilities placed in their schools by the state. Another 4 percent say that they occasionally have students with disabilities placed in their schools by the state and 15 percent say rarely. Meanwhile, 80 percent of schools say they never do.
U.S. Department of Education, Q and A: Questions and Answers On Serving Children With Disabilities Placed by Their Parents at Private Schools, http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/%2Croot%2Cdynamic%2CQaCorner%2C1%2C (April 2011) .
U.S. Supreme Court cases: School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 370 (1985); Florence County School Dist. Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993); Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 557 U.S. (2009).
Wisconsin Administrative Code, PI 11.36.
The SEECS Research Team at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, “Special Education Eligibility Criteria Study (SEECS),” June 20, 2005.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction IDEA Child Count 2011-’12, Federal Special Education Student Reporting, By Age Groups/Primary Disability, Wisconsin — October 1, 2011, http://sped.dpi.wi.gov/sped_cc-10-01-11.
Wisconsin state statutes 118.51 (5) (a) 4 and 118.51 (12),
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “Questions and Answers about full-time inter-district public school open enrollment” on DPI website. Link under “Frequently Asked Questions” at http://sms.dpi.wi.gov/sms_psctoc.
Prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for the Wisconsin Department of Administration Division of Executive Budget and Finance, LRB Number 11-1976/1, Introduction Number AB-0110, “Creating the Special Needs Scholarship Program for disabled pupils, granting rule-making authority, and making an appropriation,” May 11, 2011.
Workshop sponsored by WI FACETS, December 3, 2012.
National Public Radio’s Tell Me More, “Choosing the Right School for Special Needs,” Aug. 21, 2012.
Amy K. Stewart, “Utah Legislature: Parents hope special needs stipend survives,” Desert News, Feb. 27, 2010.
Hayley Ringle, “Arizona scholarship program faces lawsuit,” The Arizona Republic, Oct. 2, 2011.
Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte and David J. Fleming, “Special Education and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, SCDP Milwaukee Evaluation, Report #35,” Feb. 11, 2012.
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 34 › Subtitle B › Chapter III › Part 300 › Subpart B › Section 300.131, “Child Find for Parentally Placed Private School Children with Disabilities.”
(Note: According to an e-mail from David Thomas, press office, U.S. Department of Education, “The regulations at 300.131(a) require that each LEA locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities who are enrolled by their parents in private schools. The regulations at 300.132(c) require that each LEA must maintain and provide to the SEA the information related to parentally placed private school children: (1) the number of children evaluated; (2) number of children determined to be children with disabilities; and (3) the number of children served.”)
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Information Update Bulletin 06.03, October 2006, Revised 07-2010, Question #20, link at http://sped.dpi.wi.gov/sped_bul06-03#q34
(Note: These figures are used only to illustrate the fact that not all children who are evaluated are found eligible. In addition to the 729 referenced, other children would have been found eligible in prior years who still remained eligible during the 2010-’11 school year.)
“Creating the Special Needs Scholarship Program for disabled pupils, granting rule-making authority, and making an appropriation.”