- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican state lawmakers are making another push to extend taxpayer subsidies to help students with special needs attend private schools, unveiling a bill Tuesday that they said would help families trapped in public schools that can’t meet their children’s needs.

The idea, which has kicked around Wisconsin for years, is largely opposed by those in the disability rights community, who fear that moving special needs children to private schools will put them at risk of not receiving services that public schools are required to provide under federal law.

But bill backers, including two parents who spoke at a Capitol news conference to unveil the latest measure, said public schools are failing some of these children, and that they need a way out.

“I simply cannot understand why anybody would stand in the way of my girls getting the education they deserve,” said Danni Rossa, the mother of two girls with autism. Her children attended Milwaukee Public Schools for eight years before she placed them in private school at her own expense.

Four Republican lawmakers have co-sponsored the latest bill, which they circulated for support on Tuesday. Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said the proposal will get a hearing in February and she hoped the full Senate would vote on it sometime this year.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokesman didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would like to vote on the bill next month.

“I can’t see why Republicans or even some Democrats wouldn’t say this is an opportunity we should give every child,” he said.

A former version of the idea, which met with strong opposition from disability rights groups, public school teachers and others, was introduced as part of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget last year but removed as part of a compromise that extended the voucher program statewide.

The new bill is endorsed by the American Federation for Children, a national school voucher advocacy group. The group’s chairwoman, Betsy DeVos, and her husband Dick gave $250,000 to Walker during the 2012 attempt to recall him.

“This bill is about fairness, it is about equality and it is about the righteous belief that no child should be discriminated against because of their unique needs,” said Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the group.

The proposal would require anyone seeking a special-needs voucher to attend private school to have first been rejected for open enrollment at a public school outside of their local district. Vukmir said the voucher would be worth about $14,000 per student and cost about $5 million to $10 million a year, money that currently goes toward public schools.

Public schools are working well for most children with special needs, said Rep. John Jagler, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. His 16-year-old daughter has Down syndrome and attends Watertown Public School.

The bill is for those parents who have tried to work unsuccessfully within the current system to get what they need, Jagler said. He introduced the bill along with Vukmir, Rep. Den Knudson, R-Hudson, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Under federal law, if the public school district agrees that it can’t meet a student’s needs it can pay to have that student attend a private school. That student would retain all their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Such transfers rarely happen, said Lisa Pugh, the public policy coordinator with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a group that helps people get access to services and works to resolve conflicts with school districts.

Under the bill, students who accept the special needs voucher would lose protection under the federal law.

“Lack of accountability in these special needs scholarship programs when you have parents who have forfeited their rights is a major concern,” Pugh said.

More than a dozen opponents, wearing green T-shirts that said “Stop special needs vouchers,” attended the news conference and spoke out against the proposal afterward.

The bill depletes money from public schools, doesn’t address problems with the open enrollment program, and does nothing to ensure that special needs students get the services they need at a private school, said Joanne Juhnke, a parent from Madison who is part of the Stop Special Needs Vouchers group. Juhnke’s 9-year-old daughter is receiving special education services in Madison public schools.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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