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Parents deserve a choice on where to educate children with special needs

By LIZ TOLSMA | March 25, 2015

Seven years ago, my husband and I adopted a beautiful girl from the Philippines. We knew beforehand that she had minor physical handicaps. By the time we returned to the hotel with her, it was apparent that her disabilities went far beyond what we had been told. Once we returned home, she was diagnosed with moderate to severe cognitive delays. We were told she would never live on her own and that everyday activities would be difficult to impossible for her.

Our aim has always been to have our daughter live as independently as possible. We’d like to see her dress and bathe herself, set the table and make herself a sandwich, pull up the sheets on her bed and tie her shoes.

We live in a small school district that’s not used to dealing with children with our daughter’s level of need. One teacher had no idea what to do with her, so another took over. That teacher is loving and encouraging, but she doesn’t have all of the tools that our child requires.

We have found a public school outside of our district that caters to children with special needs. It has the teachers, equipment and resources to give our daughter an appropriate education. Yet our district balked at transferring her. If our district refuses, we will be limited to sending her to the local public school, whether we feel she is getting the best education there or not.

To enroll a child in a different district, both the sending and receiving districts must approve. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, open enrollment applications for students with special needs were denied almost 40% of the time for the 2013-’14 school year, compared with 30% of regular education applications. Eighty-six percent of applications denied by the sending district were rejected because it would cause an “undue financial burden,” as the sending district not only transfers the student but also the funding.

Are private schools an option? Most private schools, like the one where we send our healthy children, are small and don’t have the resources to educate a child with more severe limitations.

The IDEA Act of 1975 guarantees each child access to a “free and appropriate education.” The word “appropriate” is key in this context – and who determines what is appropriate is what’s at stake.

Last year, state Sens. Leah Vukmir and Alberta Darling and state Reps. John Jagler and Dean Knudson introduced a measure that would have provided school vouchers for special needs children. After heated opposition, the bill died in committee.

But there is strong public support for special needs vouchers: 62% of Wisconsin residents support such a program, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Poll released in January.

Vukmir told me in a recent email, many families “feel trapped in an educational setting that is failing their children. This bill finally gives them hope. Parents would be able to choose from switching to either a public or private school. Results in other states have shown that many families don’t want to leave the public school system. But many prefer to switch to a new district. This bill would give those families another option.” According to Jagler’s office, legislation could be introduced in the next couple of months. (Update: On May 19, the Joint Finance Committee moved to adopt a state budget that includes a provision to create a special needs voucher program.) 

In a 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed, six parents of special needs children said voucher bills “erode the rights and protections for children with special needs that have been fought for by the people in Wisconsin.” What rights are eroded? By fighting special needs vouchers, they are eroding my right as a parent to choose an appropriate education for my child, no matter her physical or cognitive ability.

Opponents paint a picture in which scores of parents would withdraw children from the local district. In states with special needs vouchers, this has not happened. Dawn McKee, a special education teacher in the Augusta (Ga.) public school district, told me, “Our county has a special ed program with a great reputation, so I haven’t had any families that have considered education vouchers.”

Vukmir added, “School systems that excel at teaching special needs students would see an influx in new students and additional revenue. The bill would create a competitive system that allows families to choose their school based upon results and not simply where they live.”

My daughter may or may not be better served in a different school district or in a private school. Even if Wisconsin offers vouchers, we may not take advantage of them, deciding that our local public school is the best place to educate her. But we would like the choice.

Like any parent, those who have children with special needs want their children to learn all they can, to become as productive as possible and to flourish as individuals. Parents deserve the right to be able to choose the environment in which they do so.

Liz Tolsma is a New York Times bestselling author from Washington County. This column represents her personal opinion.

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