Monday, October 24, 2016

"Special needs vouchers" - a scam in more ways than one

Throughout the 5 ½ years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, we have seen the continual and increased funneling of taxpayer dollars away from K-12 public schools through various voucher programs, putting those funds into religious schools and other private (often for-profit) organizations. This has been infuriating enough to those of us who understand that one of Wisconsin’s few advantages over other states had been its strong public schools, and it is no concidence that the state’s economy has floundered and failed to attract talent as the Wisconsin GOP has deinvested in K-12 public schools and the UW System.

But the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Erin Richards gave new, in-depth information today on the most recent voucher school scam in the state- a new “special-needs scholarship” program that started this year, designed to allow special education students to get additional money to attend private schools.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau described the funding of the new special needs program in this manner.
Set a per pupil aid transfer amount of $12,000 in 2016-17 to be transferred from the resident district to the nonresident district for each special education pupil who open enrolls. Specify that this amount be indexed annually in a manner similar to the transfer amount for a regular education pupil, which is based on the revenue limit per pupil adjustment and the change in categorical aid funding per pupil in a given year.
That $12,000 is $4,024 to $4,670 more than what is handed out in state aid for a “regular” voucher student. And just like with the traditional voucher program, many of these special needs vouchers came from students who were already attending the voucher school in the first place and whose parents were already getting a tax break for private school tuition (another scam put in by WisGOP in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, enabling those parents to write off private school tuition and the property taxes they pay for public schools).

This new special needs voucher doesn’t have any money budgeted for it in 2015-17 state budget, but instead will be “paid for” by cutting the general aids of the public school that’s in the student’s home area. Richards describes how this has resulted in further aid reductions for two prominent Milwaukee-area districts, which they just found about.
Down the road in Hartland, Arrowhead Union High School officials opened their state aid figures this month to find a new deduction of $84,000 to pay for seven resident children using special-needs vouchers.

The method for paying for special-needs vouchers results in districts with declining enrollment, like Arrowhead, losing a separate cushion of funding. That amounted to an additional $20,000 loss from last year, Business Manager Steve Kopecky said.

“It’s a new tweak we have to budget for," he said.

Districts can recoup some of the aid losses through a complicated funding formula. But over time, most districts would still face a gap of at least $2,000 per participating child each year.

Milwaukee Public Schools has the largest number of resident children using new special-needs vouchers. The district will lose about $1.8 million in state aid to pay for about 150 resident students.

Interestingly, the state budget also threw in an extra $5,000,000 for High-Cost Special Education aid for students with exceptional needs. As the Legislative Fiscal Bureau described
Under the current law program, school districts, CESAs, County Children with Disability Education Boards (CCDEBs), and independent charter schools are eligible for high-cost aid for 90% of non-administrative costs above $30,000 for an individual pupil in the previous school year, if the costs were not reimbursed by state special education categorical aid, federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or the federal Medicaid program. If funding is insufficient, payments are prorated.
This program had maxed out its allocation of $3.5 million in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, likely meaning that at least some districts did not get that full 90% reimbursement (the 2015-16 figure has not been produced, as it is among the “missing appendix items” in last week’s Annual Fiscal Report). So $5 million was added to the $3.5 million for a total of $8.5 million available in high-cost aid for the 2016-17 school year. But while these extra funds for high-cost special education are nice, they only apply to a small portion of students. And the money comes with a major catch: the 90% coverage of costs over $30K that were previously covered was reduced by WisGOP to 70%. So while there’s more money available, the district has to eat more of the high costs associated with students with exceptional needs. So much for that “funding increase.”

Even worse, the State of Wisconsin hasn’t raised the amount of special education aids it gives to K-12 districts for 8 years. This often means that the extra, required costs of special education get loaded onto general education, and the property taxes of district residents. And now these special needs vouchers are taking out even more of the general aids for schools.

And it’s not like special education instructors and aides can be reduced in these districts just because a few students (and their parents) grab the special needs vouchers and head to a private school. There are still sizable amounts of students in need of special ed services, and it would be hard to justify reducing one of those staff positions just because a few students have left, as it would likely be an inefficient move (in addition to being really scuzzy).

I suppose that outcome might lower the student-to-teacher ratio a bit, as the remaining special education students in the district might get a little more individual attention. But that marginal help doesn’t come close to the loss of resources that the district has had to take on, both for this year and in previous years. Given the lack of an increase in special ed funding from the state and the cuts to general K-12 aids, it is likely that the level and/or quality of special ed services have declined over the last 8 years.

We shouldn’t be surprised that convicted criminal Scott Jensen and the voucher lobby have pulled off another scam on Wisconsin taxpayers with this “special needs scholarship” program. But we can stop it from getting worse, by voting out every and all GOP legislative candidates that have voted for this crap, or getting help from voucher front groups this election season.

And no matter what these GOP puppets may say to their voters in public, and no matter what “show votes” they may make against the state budget, if they are kept in office, the voucher lobby’s agenda will continue. NONE ARE INNOCENT. And if the voucher lobby’s agenda continues, the deterioration of Wisconsin’s public schools will continue, and the rip-off of Wisconsin taxpayers will continue.


  1. My son was in special education in one form or another for most of this time in Madison Public Schools. I'm debating just how much I want to say about that experience.

    I met some truly amazing people - people who helped my son in a dozen different ways every day he was there, but if you were to ask me about the program in general, I don't think we're getting a lot of bang for our buck.

    As for our legislature and its complicity with the voucher program, it's worth remembering Mike Ellis.

    Looong time Republican State Senator. Pretty well-regarded in most quarters. Not a big voucher supporter. Oddly enough, I haven't heard much from ole Mike in a while.

    There was that thing where James O'Keefe surreptitiously recorded him musing about doing what it turns out Scott Walker and company were actually doing, and I think he was gone soon after that.

    Can't imagine there's any connection though.

    1. Good comments, Jeff. I have little doubt Ellis was ratfucked by the Kochs and other voucher slime like Jensen, because they replaced him with a puppet in Roger Roth.

      It's an instructive story, because there are no "reasonable Republicans" left that will slow down or modify bad legislation. Which is why I say all GOPs must be held accountable and removed, no matter what they say in public.

    2. By the way here were my thoughts on Ellis getting screwed over. They are sadly prophetic, including my premonition on how much of a partisan hack Brad Schimel would be as Attorney General after seeing how he let Scott Jensen off the hook.