Wisconsin passes and improves scholarship program for special need students

Today, the Special Needs Scholarship Bill, authored by state Senator Leah Vukmir and state Representative John Jagler, passed the Senate with a 19-13 vote. SB 615 modifies and expands on a special needs voucher program created in the Wisconsin 2015 budget. The bill now moves on to Governor Scott Walker for his signature.

“Wisconsin has been at the forefront of the school choice movement, and AFC would like to thank the legislature for continuing this momentum and embracing educational choice,” said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children. “Every child, especially those with special needs, deserves access to an education tailored to meet their unique needs. This program will allow those children who are not being well served in their local public school the opportunity to attend a school that will help them thrive and succeed.”

Wisconsin currently has an Open Enrollment program, the state’s longstanding public school choice option that allows children to attend a school district other than the one in which their family lives. About 50,000 children use this program each year. Unfortunately, public schools are allowed to block children with special needs from using this option and more than 1000 rejections are given to special needs children each year.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program will allow Wisconsin students with an IEP who attended public school for the year prior the opportunity to receive a $12,000 scholarship to attend the private school of their parents’ choice. Initially, due to a drafting error, the bill passed in 2015 only addressed students going forward. SB 615 corrects that mistake and now allows for students who have been discriminated against in the past five years an opportunity to receive this scholarship.

Dani Rossa, a Wauwatosa mother who helped champion the bill said, “I’m very happy that this bill is finally passing. It will allow families [like mine] to seek an education outside of their resident public school district. I’m relieved to know that my girls can continue to get the education they deserve and require, while lessening our financial burden. I am very grateful to Sen. Vukmir and Rep. Jagler for their commitment to getting this bill passed. I want them to know that this means so much to me and my family.”

“Too many students with special needs have been stuck in public schools that failed them. Now they finally have the freedom to choose and attend a school that truly meets their needs,” said state Sen. Leah Vukmir. “I am thrilled for families in my district who can finally give their children the opportunity to thrive in a new school that works for them.”

“For too long, too many children have been locked in schools that aren’t working for them,” added state Rep. John Jagler. “The system in place, open enrollment, has failed these families as children with special needs have their application denied at a much greater rate than other students. I am very pleased relief is on the way, and applaud Senator Vukmir for fighting for these families on the joint finance committee. Let’s knock open more school house doors for these kids and trust parents to make the best educational choices for their children.”