Budget Watch: Special Education

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Budget Watch: Special Education

Premiere Date: 
April 11, 2013

Zac Schultz examines funding for special education in Gov. Scott Walker's budget.

 

Episode Transcript: 

One-on-one teacher:

What are these? Boots! Give me a five.

Zac Schultz:

Sam was diagnosed with severe autism when he was just 21 months old.

Susan Giaimo:

Severe, but not super severe.

Zac Schultz:

Sam is now 13 and his mother, Susan Giaimo, has seen him come a long way.

Susan Giaimo:

I would say his progress is slow and steady.

One-on-one teacher:

Try, “Sssssss....”

Susan Giaimo:

He can't speak, but he's got really good receptive language. I think he understands an awful lot of what we're saying to him.

Zac Schultz:

Sam started sign language at age three, and now has functional command of 88 signs. A lot of his progress has been made here in his home in Wauwatosa. Medicaid pays for a certain amount of private in-home treatment and Susan pays out of pocket for even more. It's more than language.

One-on-one teacher:

Sam, what’s this?

Zac Schultz:

Therapists are helping Sam learn to make his own meals and be more independent.

Susan Giaimo:

We know he can learn, because he only gets five hours a week of the home program. It's evidence-based, sequential curriculum. It's rigorous in the data collection and he learns.

Zac Schultz:

Susan says the problem is Sam is not getting the same treatment at school.

Susan Giaimo:

And he's not reaching his potential. Where he is right now, it's pretty much day care, and it's not even good day care. And it's very expensive day care.

Zac Schultz:

The Wauwatosa school district declined our request for an interview. Under federal and state law, special education students have additional rights and Susan has used the system to fight to get Sam more rigorous treatment.

Susan Giaimo:

We're frustrated, because we worked within the system for seven years. We've talked to two different attorneys, two or three different advocates. We've gone through mediation. That failed. Everything that we've done has been within the system. And we're not getting anywhere.

Zac Schultz:

A lawyer told her the last option is an expensive lawsuit that they may not win. Susan is hoping an item tucked away in Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal is her solution, school choice for students with special needs.

Susan Giaimo:

If you have a child with disabilities, you don't have choice, and that's not right. I mean, that's just fundamentally unfair. There's something really wrong with that.

Zac Schultz:

Unlike the school choice debate that is dominating budget talks, the governor's Special Needs Scholarship Program would not be limited to Milwaukee or other large cities. It would be statewide, with no income restrictions. According to the Department of Public Instruction, there are more than 123,000 special education students in Wisconsin. Any of them would be free to go to any private school that would take them and, most importantly, a higher level of funding would come with them.

Tony Evers:

We estimate $14,700 and I think that's on the low end.

Zac Schultz:

The Department of Public Instruction and State Superintendent Tony Evers would be responsible for determining the size of the vouchers based on the level of services the child needs.

Tony Evers:

That money would follow the students through the private school, and come directly-- This isn't coming from the state. This is coming directly from local school districts.

Zac Schultz:

Evers is not a supporter of the idea and republicans in control of the legislature are split.

Luther Olsen:

So there's all kinds of issues with that piece of legislation. And as one of the superintendents told me, who's a good republican, he said this is the worst piece of legislation he's seen and he's a school superintendent.

John Nygren:

I'm supportive in concept.

Zac Schultz:

Representative John Nygren is the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which is working on the governor's budget.

John Nygren:

We do accept that special needs kids do cost more, so this is a way for those parents to have that same opportunity.

Teacher:

Is that the color the tomato soup can really is?

Students:

No.

Zac Schultz:

That opportunity will lead many special needs students here. Judy Schultz is the administrator at Lutheran Special School, which is located in a wing of Milwaukee Lutheran High School. They teach 60 special needs students, grades 3 through 8, and they have to turn down students because they don't have enough space or money for more.

Judy Schultz:

Our actual cost per child is around $12,000.

Zac Schultz:

Each child currently comes with a school choice voucher worth $6400. They charge another $4,000 in tuition, but not all the parents can afford it, so the school has to fund raise about half a million dollars each year. If each special needs child was suddenly worth $15,000, that would more than cover their cost.

Judy Schultz:

That additional money would allow us to increase our program and services.

Zac Schultz:

That additional money would come from the local public school district. This school year, the state and federal government combined will provide $557 million in categorical aids for special education. Local districts spend millions more to fully fund their programs.

Barbara Kelley:

The funding is complicated.

Zac Schultz:

Barbara Kelley is the supervisor of special education for the school district of Janesville. They have 1400 special education students, making up 14% of their student body.  Including state and federal dollars, the district will spend $17.9 million on special education, $12,500 per student.

Teacher:

If I can't do that, I need to go where...?

Zac Schultz:

Most of that money pays the salaries for the 125 special education teachers. Barbara Kelley knows what most parents will say about the special needs vouchers.

Barbara Kelley:

If the schools have to pay, the public schools pay for these children to go to other schools, that means less resources for my child.

Zac Schultz:

It's a common fear for democrats like Senator Dave Hansen.

Dave Hansen:

There are programs not available in these private schools. They're going to have to do a lot. Are they just going to cherry pick and take the ones they can handle and send the rest back to public schools?

Zac Schultz:

Judy Schultz at Lutheran Special School understands.

Judy Schultz:

There are ways to provide things with less money. We do it all the time. But I realize also that they have regulations and a structure that may impose on them things that we don't have imposed on us.

Terry Brown:

By and large, the districts will continue to do most of the special education work in the state.

Zac Schultz:

Terry Brown is Vice-President of School Choice Wisconsin, an interest group that lobbies for the expansion of vouchers. He says the bulk of the kids that will benefit from these vouchers are the special needs kids already in private schools.

Terry Brown:

We'll likely see a number of kids now begin to receive more services at their private school, because there will be additional funding for the school to either contract out for services or to hire staff.

Judy Schultz:

These kids are there already and they would like to serve them better and that would enable them to do that.

Tony Evers:

I'm more concerned about the children, services they get.

Zac Schultz:

State Superintendent Tony Evers says the biggest concern from opponents has to do with students' rights.

Tony Evers:

Kids would surrender their guaranteed services at the door.

Zac Schultz:

For every student identified as special needs, the public school district creates an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. It determines what services the child is guaranteed to receive.

Barbara Kelley:

When a child enrolls in a private school, it becomes an individual service plan and there are no guarantees of what those services may look like or the level of those services.

Zac Schultz:

Private school kids can end up back at the public school for more expensive therapy.

Barbara Kelley:

Speech and language, occupational, physical therapy.

Zac Schultz:

Those are the services Judy Schultz would like to provide at Lutheran Special School.

Judy Schultz:

We'd like to have speech and language therapy, and things like PT/OT, but are limited now based on funding.

Zac Schultz:

Opponents of vouchers don't doubt the sincerity of Lutheran Special School, but they worry for-profit schools will open that won't provide those services.

Tony Evers:

So, my guess is what has happened in other states, sort of mom and pop shops open up on Main Street and they say we're taking care of special ed kids, bring along 15 grand and you're in.

Judy Schultz:

I think those fears are out there, but I think that we've learned a lot from the Choice Program and know what kinds of things and what safeguards to put in place.

Scott Walker:

We’re going to look at a number of ways working through the statutes and the budget process, but even through the Department of Public Instruction.

Zac Schultz:

Governor Walker thinks ultimately it will be parents like Susan Giaimo that make sure their child is getting the services they need.

Scott Walker:

In the end, we're empowering parents. Who are going to be better advocates for students than parents?

Susan Giaimo:

If we were sending him to another school, we would hold them to the same high standards of accountability.

Zac Schultz:

Susan says their private care provider has estimated Sam's therapy would cost $42,000 a year.

Susan Giaimo:

My son is severe and we've already been told by two schools that they would take him if we had the right level of support.

Zac Schultz:

But if the legislation doesn't pass, Susan is ready to exercise her version of school choice, selling her house and moving to another district.


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