Debate over the special needs voucher program continues

Voucher would allow special needs students to attend private schools

About two weeks ago, state lawmakers introduced an updated special needs voucher program that would allow special needs students the opportunity to attend private schools, but it comes at a price for taxpayers.

Those in support of the bill say it would allow parents to choose which school their child would go to, whether public or private, based on their child’s specific needs. However, opponents believe it would be taking money out of an already underfunded program in public schools.

“We are essentially pulling money out of the public school system which is struggling to begin with,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

It could hurt the students with disabilities who remain in the public school system. Evers said families who choose to use a voucher would have to give up certain rights at the door.

“They surrender all of their federal and state rights that they have in the public school system,” said Evers.

Right now, private schools are not required to follow federal disability laws or provide special education services.

“We’ve had horror stories from other states that have done this where students are essentially warehoused and not receiving an appropriate education,” said Evers.

However, President of Aquinas Catholic Schools Dr. Kurt Nelson said there is often a misconception that private schools don’t deal with special needs students already.

“We have students who have reading disabilities, who have dyslexia, we have students who have Asperger, we have students who have autism, we have students who have needs who we are working very effectively with parents and professional educators to meet those needs,” said Nelson.

Nelson said the voucher program would only help the family find the best resources.

“It provides the option first through the regular public school open enrollment and if that option doesn’t work for a family, rather than being a dead end, it still gives them some opportunities to meet the needs of their child,” said Nelson.

Either way, both educators said they want what is best for the kids.

“We want to be very upfront with parents and say this is what we can offer. Sometimes that meets their needs and sometimes parents realize that their child needs more resources than that and they can get that at a different school,” said Nelson.

“I think we do a very good job in trying to meet those needs,” said Evers.

With the open enrollment system, students with disabilities do have the right to move within different school districts.

The proposed measure has been referred to the Committee of Education.