Joint Finance Approves Expansion of Special Needs Vouchers

By Latoya Dennis, WUWM News 

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is putting the final touches on the state budget. One of the items members took up Wednesday was an expansion of vouchers for special needs students. After more than an hour of contentious debate, the panel voted along party lines, 12 to four in favor of doubling the program.

Under the changes approved on Wednesday, the special needs voucher program could cost an additional $3 million. But Democrats on the joint finance committee warn the price tag actually could be much higher, because under the Republican plan, there is no cap on expenses that could be covered.

Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point argued that instead of expanding the voucher program, the panel should focus on increasing the aid the state pays public schools for special needs students.

“We took up the education budget and categorical aids for special education for kids in public schools have not increased for a decade. So while special education money for public school children has fallen flat, you’re putting new money in today, $3.1 million for a few hundred kids who will not fall under the same federal protections as our public school children. So that is not only concerning, but it really tells me where your priorities lie,” Shankland says.

Shankland accused Republican colleagues of ignoring calls from the public -- for years -- to increase the amount of aid public schools get for educating special needs students.

Milwaukee state Sen. Lena Taylor also criticized the GOP plan. She says the expansion of vouchers for special needs students puts other poor families at a disadvantage. Taylor points out that the state already has expanded the school choice program to families not considered low income…

“Now were about to open up the floodgates and provide to any school. Private, charter and vouchers in particular and we’re going to say and you can have as much as you want. But still, public schools, we’re capping what you get. That is the frustration,” Taylor says.

However, Republican Rep. Mary Felzkowski of Irma says constituents are demanding the voucher system be expanded, not lawmakers.

“Who expands school choice, who does that? Parents do that because parents want what’s best for their child and they make the choice that works for the individual child. And you have heard us with a lot of conversation up here, my colleagues talk about schools, support schools,” Felzkowski says.

Felzkowski says all children deserve opportunities, and that’s what expanding special needs vouchers offers. Meanwhile, joint finance co-chair argues it's up to lawmakers to focus on what's best for all children -- not just some. The Marinette Republican says the expansion of special needs vouchers does just that.

“The most successful school choice program in the state is open enrollment and at the time that was developed, it was just as controversial. Yet it is widely accepted that a parent should be able to make a decision that perhaps Marinette is the best school for my children but perhaps Peshtigo is. Or reversed. And that is widely accepted that parents have the ability to make that decision,” Nygren says.

The changes lawmakers approved are part of the state’s $76 billion budget. It first needs to be passed by the full Senate and Assembly before heading to Governor Walker’s desk.