Fact checking State Rep. Shankland on the Special Needs Scholarship Program

By Will Flanders, PhD, and CJ Szafir

The major news from last week’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) meeting was the approval of significant reforms to the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP), i.e. the state voucher program that allows special needs children to attend a private school of their choosing. The changes drastically expanded access to the program and increased funding for it. We explained why such changes were necessary.

Of course not everyone was excited to give parents of special needs children more control over their education. The defenders of the status quo trotted out the usual talking points. (video of the JFC hearing can be found here).   

Most vocal was state Representative Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). Unfortunately for her, we’ve decided to fact-check the four most egregious Shankland statements.

  • “No data or evidence based research to show that students receive better outcomes in special needs voucher program.”

To quote the Gipper, “there you go again.” There are many academic studies that have shown that students enrolled in voucher programs outperform their public school peers. A summary of them is found here.  

Even if Shankland was specifically referring to vouchers for special needs kids, she is still wrong. One of the most comprehensive analyses of special needs vouchers was conducted by Green and Forster in 2003. This study examined the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida by a survey of participating parents and those who had left the program. The study concluded that students in the McKay program were significantly more likely to report being satisfied with their schools than those in traditional public schools. Participants were less likely to report behavior problems in McKay schools and less likely to report being victimized by bullies for their disability.

Other studies show that choice and competition help children in public schools. Winters and Greene (2011) found that students with disabilities in public schools located near McKay-participating private schools saw better performance.

  • “(WILL) is getting their way when a lot of different parents groups, disability rights groups, and education professionals are asking for a fair shot for all of our kids.”

This is most accurate if you replace “parents groups” with “special interest groups opposed to school choice.” In contrast to Shankland’s statement, greater empowerment of parents, especially those of special needs children, is a winning issue. A 2015 WPRI poll showed as much, revealing that 62 percent of Wisconsinites supported a special needs voucher program.  

It’s easy to understand why. Educating children with special needs is hard. And while some public schools do it very well, others do not; the one-sized-fits-all public school is not perfect for every child. This often puts parents of special needs children in a very difficult decision: navigate the complicated – and at times costly – legal procedures of challenging the school district’s IEP program or spend tens of thousands of dollars to enroll into a private school. A special needs voucher alleviates some of that burden and makes those parents’ lives just a little bit easier. Most people understand the value of that.

And parents of children with special needs clearly want educational options. The state’s so-called open enrollment program, i.e. public school choice, has, on average, 5,780 special needs applications every year. In the first year of the SNSP, despite significant hurdles in enrollment, there were 235 students enrolled into the program.

So Shankland is basing this on statements made about the SNSP made by anti-school choice groups, like Stop Special Needs Vouchers Wisconsin, who put out a press release following the passage of the bill that included some complaints from parents, Disability Rights Wisconsin, the teachers’ unions, and other groups. It is fine for them to advocate for their issues, but legislators should not interpret that as a majority of the state agreeing with their positions.

  • “These kids lose their federal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

This is one of the more telling attacks against SNSP expansion because it highlights the low level of faith that policymakers like Shankland have in parents to make sound decisions regarding their child’s education. Private schools are not required to provide the exact same menu of services that would be provided by a public school under federal law, but the law provides for parents and schools to come to an agreement as to what services they would like for their child. If the parents are unsatisfied with the services that are negotiated, they are under no obligation to send their child to the school.  

Far from “risking their child’s education,” as Shankland claimed at another point, this negotiation process represents a path for personalization and creativity that sometimes may not exist in a traditional school setting.

And a number of legal protections still exist for special needs children in the SNSP at a private school. Private schools who accept federal funds are subject to certain provisions of the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (and of the Americans with Disabilities Act) and are required to make “minor adjustments” for students with disabilities.  

It is still illegal for private schools in the choice program to discriminate against kids with disabilities. In fact, a four year investigation into the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program from the Obama Justice Department – no fan of school choice – concluded that there was no evidence of discrimination.    

  • “In that second year… (SNSP participating schools) are reimbursed for 90 percent of the cost, whether it’s 250, 500,000 or even a million dollars…”

This is undoubtedly a scare tactic. First, the money is only provided to the school in the year prior to making the expenditure and for special education services actually provided. We venture to say that there are few private schools in the state that could afford to engage in profligate spending – a million dollars! – on a particular child to the extent that Shankland proposes. Second, the school must provide a financial statement to DPI documenting every expense on the child. This is an accountability mechanism through which DPI can look for red flags of excessive spending by a school on a particular student.  

Lastly, while public schools may receive less funding, as Shankland hammers home, that would only be because they are no longer educating the special needs student. Is Shankland advocating for public schools to receive funding for students that they are not educating? If so, does that same principle apply when students move out of the district?

Republican JFC members did not buy the myths being perpetuated by opponents of school choice when they approved SNSP expansion. Now it’s the turn of the Senate, Assembly, and Governor Scott Walker to do the same.


Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
CJ Szafir is Vice President for Policy and Deputy Counsel at WILL.
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