AFC Mythbusters #8: SNS Effect on Public Schools


“The proposed special needs scholarship will devastate public schools.”


The special needs scholarship is different than a typical school choice program because it allows those eligible to select a participating private, charter, or public school to attend with the scholarship. This fact is literally the opening language of the program:

115.7915 Special Needs Scholarship Program.

(1) DEFINITION. In this section:

(a) “Eligible school” means a public school located in this state but outside the pupil’s school district of residence; a charter school located in this state, including a charter school located in the pupil’s school district of residence and a charter school under s. 118.40 (8); or a private school located in this state. (Page 807, Lines 19-24)

In fact, the parents who testified in favor of the special needs scholarship at the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) budget hearings articulated their plans to apply to participating public schools in neighboring school districts—not private schools in their area—if the legislature affirms their right to exercise educational freedom.

Why would these parents need the governor and legislature to help them get into a neighboring public school? When Wisconsin established the Open Enrollment program through the 1997-99 biennial budget (1997 Act 27), some legislators ensured that school districts would be able to forbid parents of special needs children from leaving their school district with the funds it receives because of their children. This provision allows districts to trap special needs children in schools with which their parents are unhappy.

The provision is called “undue financial burden,” and according to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) data, of the 517 special needs open enrollment applications that were denied by the resident school district in 2012-13, “undue financial burden” was cited as a reason in 485 cases (or 94 percent of them).

As we reported in Myth Buster #6, a large majority of the 2,157 special needs open enrollment applications that were denied by nonresident school districts in 2012-13 were denied specifically for special education reasons (such as, the special education programming the student needs is not available).

So, while public school districts are expressly allowed to discriminate under Wisconsin’s open enrollment statutes (see above hyperlinks), private choice schools are falsely accused of discriminating against special needs students, without evidence.

DPI reports that 2,327 special needs open enrollment applications were denied by either the nonresident or resident school district in 2012-13 (some applications are denied by both school districts).

Based upon the parents who have testified at JFC’s public hearing (testimony which you can see posted on the parents’ Facebook page a month ago), we can also assume that most parents will seek out another public school with their special needs scholarship. A program in which many of the children will be transferring from one public school to another will not devastate public schools.

In addition, the experiences in other states with special needs scholarships suggest that participation by parents will begin with a trickle. Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, which is very similar to Governor Walker’s scholarship, has attracted 1 percent of the state’s total special needs student enrollment from just 309 of the state’s 613 school districts in its first two years.

1 percent of Wisconsin’s special needs student enrollment amounts to about 1,200 students statewide, or less than three students per school district. Also, as Ohio has demonstrated, half of Wisconsin’s school districts will likely not even be affected. In all likelihood, smaller school districts with lower special needs enrollment will not see a single student leave the school district with a scholarship.

Contrary to offensive charges by some opponents, parents do not make the decision to uproot their special needs children from their current school and enroll them in just any school that sounds like a good fit. They only decide to change schools when they’ve exhausted all efforts to work within the current school, and they’re confident in an alternative. And, because they know what does not work for their child, they exercise even more discretion when researching a new school and holding it accountable.

Officials who predict that passing a special needs scholarship program to help a small number of parents will devastate public schools are engaging in the same kind of hyperbole that Wisconsinites have learned to ignore in recent years.

We’ve always said that most parents of special needs children are happy with their local public school, but for a small number of families, it just isn’t working. The alternative to Governor Walker’s special needs scholarship, of course, is continuing to trap special needs children in schools that are not working for them.

For a small number of special needs parents, the status quo of no educational choices is a nonstarter.