JFC Budget: Special Education Voucher Program Created

The K-12 education funding package approved by the Joint Finance Committee early Wednesday morning creates a special education voucher program, beginning in 2016-17, that will allow a child with a disability to attend a participating private school located in Wisconsin with a $12,000 voucher, if that child have been previously denied open enrollment in a nonresident school district under the public school open enrollment program.

(Note: The JFC package also modifies public school open enrollment for students with disabilities. These changes, which the WASB worked to develop, along with disability rights groups, school administrators, special education administrators and the DPI, will be described in a separate post.)

To be eligible for a special needs voucher, a child must have attended a public school in Wisconsin for the entire school year immediately preceding the school year in which the child seeks to participate in the voucher program and must have an individualized education plan (IEP) or services plan in place. The child must have applied to a attend a public school in one or more nonresident districts under the open enrollment process in the same school year and been rejected by the school boards of each district or prohibited from attending public school in the nonresident districts.

As noted, participating private schools would receive $12,000 for each child participating in the program and attending that school, paid from an appropriation for transfer payments for special education pupils. The general equalization aid to participating pupil’s school district of residence would be reduced by an amount equal to the total amount paid to participating private schools on behalf of special education pupils attending those schools from the district. If the district does not receive enough general equalization aid sufficient to cover the aid reduction, the balance would be reduced from other state aid received by the district. Pupils participating in the program can be counted by their school district of residence for the general aids and revenue limit purposes.

Current state law governing pupil transportation by school districts would apply to children attending a private school under the special education voucher program.

Each school board must annually notify the parents of each child with a disability enrolled in the district of the special needs voucher program.

Participating private schools must provide each applicant for a special education voucher with a profile of the private school’s special education program, in a form prescribed by the DPI, that includes the methods of instruction that will be used by the school to provide special education and related services to the child and the qualifications of the teachers and other persons who will be providing such services to the child.

The private school would be required to implement the child’s most recent IEP or services plan, as modified by agreement between the private school and the child’s parent, and related services agreed to by the private school and the child’s parent that are not included in the IEP or services plan.

The school district of residence of a child that attends a private school under this program must ensure that the child’s IEP team re-evaluates the child at least every three years, unless the parent and the school agree otherwise. If the IEP team determines that the child is no longer a child with a disability, the child would become ineligible to participate in the program, beginning in the school tem following the determination.

Upon the request of a parent of a child participating in the program, the child’s resident public school district must administer the appropriate state standardized student assessment of the child, at no cost, if the school attended by the child does not administer them.

Under the JFC package the DPI is required to develop a document for inclusion with the special needs voucher application that compares the rights of a child with a disability and of his or her parents under state special law and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, the federal special education law), with the rights of a child and of his or her parent in a private school under the special education voucher program. The receipt of this document, acknowledged in a format prescribed by the DPI would constitute notice that the applicant and his or her parents have been informed of their rights under state and federal law.

State law relating to the physical restraint of pupils would apply to private schools participating in the special education voucher program.

Private schools participating in the program would be required to: (a) comply with all health and safety codes that apply to private schools; (b) hold a valid certificate of occupancy, if required by the municipality in which the school is located, or obtain a certification of occupancy issued by the local or regional government unit with authority to issues such certificates; (c) comply with federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national original by any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance; (d) conduct criminal background checks on its employees and exclude from employment anyone not permitted to hold teaching license as the result of an offense and any person who might reasonably be believed to pose a threat to the safety of others.

Oddly, the anti-discrimination language in the motion—see item (c) in the preceding paragraph—does not appear to prevent discrimination against children (or others) with disabilities.

The WASB has opposed and fought against the creation of a special education voucher program, which has also been opposed by groups representing students with disabilities and their parents.  Similar proposals have been offered in previous legislative sessions as separate legislation but have not been adopted.  The proposal included in the JFC package had not been introduced as a separate bill this session and had not been given a public hearing prior to the JFC adopting it.