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Special Needs Voucher Program

The 2015-17 Wisconsin State Budget created a new form of school choice: the Special Needs Scholarship.

This program is optional for schools to elect into, and will first become available for the 2016-17 school year. The Special Education Voucher Program is completely separate from the other parental choice programs in the state, and has its own aplication process.

Only students with IEPs who have been attending a public school for the previous year and who have been rejected from attending at least one school through the open enrollment program for the same year they are seeking to use the Special Needs Voucher are eligible.

There is no income requirement. The voucher amount will be $12,000.

If a school receives at least $50,000 in Special Needs Vouchers they are required to have a surety bond.

For more information on this program, please see the statute listed below.




How Special Needs are Identified and Funded

 Opponents of school choice often claim that the private schools that participate in the program do not have to follow the same rules as public schools with regards to students with special needs.  They make unfounded claims of enrollment discrimination and imply that private schools intentionally screen out students.

The reality is that federal law, which dictates how students with special needs’ education is funded, is highly differential in the way in which it distributes both responsibility and resources.  Public school districts receive all the responsibility and are given all of the money to educate students with special needs, in both public and private schools.  Additionally, there are very specific rules in place for how the limited resources allocated to students in private schools are administered.

 SCW created this guide to explain the truth about special education in private schools, which includes choice schools.

1)   State law prevents private schools in the parental choice program from discriminating against students with special needs.  Students can only be denied admission to the program based on income and residency rules. 

2)   The federal law titled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or, IDEA, requires public school districts to identify and evaluate students at public schools, private schools, and home schools who may have disabilities (i.e. Child Find). If a child is suspected of having a disability, the district pays for and conducts an evaluation.

3)   Private schools report suspected disability cases to the local LEA.

4)   If a child in a private school qualifies for special education, a consultation between the public school districts, acting as the Local Education Agency (LEA), private school representatives, and the parents will occur. The LEA will outline the services available to the student if he or she enrolls in public school, and will also discuss what “equitable services” are available at the private school. Equitable services is the public funding that is set aside for students with special needs whose parents enroll them in private school. This funding is limited, which means that the child receives fewer free services needed for their disability.  (E.g. In Milwaukee, these services are usually limited to speech therapy for students in select grades.)

5)   If the family decides to continue to enroll their child in private school, the school and the public school district create a Services Plan, which is similar to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The majority of students that go through the process of seeking a services plan are put on a waiting list and never receive services. This is a disincentive to seek services plans. 

6)   Private schools lack the incentives to label students and are more likely to treat them like other students in the school. The School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP)[1] found that most private schools lack the incentives, personnel, protocols, and organizational culture that lead public school systems to label students with disabilities as requiring special education services. Additionally, some parents do not want their child labeled as special needs and want their child to have the same education as students without any disabilities. In some cases where the special need is mild, smaller classes and increased attention given to that child can be enough to accommodate some disabilities. Private schools often hesitate to count a student as having a disability, but that does not mean they do not enroll students who would be formally designated as students with special needs if they were in public schools. The SCDP estimated that between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of Milwaukee choice students have disabilities that likely would qualify them for special education services in MPS.[2]

7)   Public schools, after having a child evaluated, can decide that the district cannot meet the needs of the child’s disabilities. In that case, they will opt for an out-of-district placement where the district pays for the cost of sending the child to a school approved by the state to educate students with certain disabilities.  The public open enrollment process also can reject accepting a student with special needs if the services necessary in their IEP are not available in that school.[3]

In conclusion, the process for recognizing, evaluating, and creating a plan for a student with special needs often leads to parents electively leaving a private school for a district school with more resources. Private schools do not “kick out” students with special needs, but the lack of funding private schools receive for students with special needs incentivizes parents to choose another school.








[3] 118.51(5)(a)4.


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