Kim Fitzer’s daughter, Trinity, was attending kindergarten at Northwest Catholic School in Milwaukee with a voucher from the state for the 2011-12 school year. But Trinity, then 6, had gastrointestinal problems and anxiety — conditions Fitzer said the private school was ill equipped to address.
Fitzer said the school repeatedly called her to pick up Trinity, saying she was “out of control.” After Trinity knocked papers to the floor and kicked a teacher who tried to restrain her, Fitzer was told the girl no longer was welcome at the school.
Northwest Catholic Principal Michelle Paris said in an email statement that “every decision was made in the very best interest of the child with mutual agreement of our school leadership and the parent.”
But Fitzer said it was not her decision, and she “didn’t have an option.”
Trinity transferred to a Milwaukee public school, where she has received special education services that address her anxiety as a disability.
Under the state’s parental choice program, Northwest Catholic received a $6,442 voucher for Trinity’s enrollment in the private school, but the public school got no extra money for taking her through the end of the school year. Critics of school choice, and a pending federal lawsuit, charge that students with disabilities, such as Trinity, are being underserved by publicly funded vouchers meant to give low-income students in Milwaukee and Racine the chance of a private education.
In the 2012-13 school year, Milwaukee’s longstanding choice program served almost 25,000 students and cost $155 million, paid mostly by the state and partially by Milwaukee Public Schools, according to preliminary numbers from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Racine’s two-year-old program served about 500 students and cost $3.2 million.
With choice programs poised to go statewide, some lawmakers have voiced concern that students with disabilities will be left behind.
“The problem with the voucher program is that it cherry-picks which students it’s going to take,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. “That’s not really a public education system when you’re not opening it up to everyone and giving everyone a chance to participate.”
Part of a pattern
A block from Northwest Catholic is Hawthorne Elementary, a public school. Social worker Jane Audette said the school receives several “cast-off” students every year from private schools who must be evaluated for special education services.
Often students leave choice schools after the annual fall headcount on the third Friday in September, which determines how much funding the voucher schools get in the first semester, public school officials say. A second enrollment tally is taken in January.
“We have seen that children with behavioral issues are signed into a voucher school and once they get past the third Friday — the Kodak moment for determining headcount — there’s a phenomena that occurs that students are no longer able to participate in the private school,” said Gary Myrah, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services.
Though choice schools cannot deny enrollment to a student on the basis of disability, they do not have a legal requirement to meet a student’s special needs, as public schools do.
Two nonprofit groups advocating for students with disabilities — Disability Rights Wisconsin and the American Civil Liberties Union — filed a lawsuit against the state in 2011 alleging discrimination by voucher schools. In April, responding to the complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter directing the state Department of Public Instruction to collect more information about alleged incidences of discrimination.
Leaving choice schools
For the 2012-13 school year, Milwaukee choice schools reported that about 1.5 percent of their students had disabilities, according to DPI, while about 20 percent of MPS students did. (Others say choice schools have more students with disabilities who are not identified or counted.)
At the same time, nearly one-third of the 400-plus students who left Milwaukee choice schools for MPS in the first few months of the school year were students with disabilities, according to MPS data made public by the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, an interfaith organization that wants to expose the practice.
The data represent only students who went to the MPS Office of Family Services for assistance in transferring, so they are not comprehensive.
Choice schools say at $6,442 per voucher, they cannot afford to serve students whose needs exceed that amount. Public schools spent an average of $12,376 per student in the 2011-12 school year, DPI reported.
Recognizing that it can cost more to support students with disabilities, Gov. Scott Walker initially proposed allocating more than $20 million over the next two years specifically for special education students to attend charter, private or nonresident public schools.
The vouchers would have been worth more than twice the usual amount. The proposal was removed from the budget, but choice advocates hope to take it up separately in the fall.
“Schools want to be able to educate more special needs students,” said Scott Jensen, senior adviser for the American Federation for Children, a group that promotes school choice. “It’s a matter of funding, and that’s what the scholarship program is designed for.”
At Hickman Academy in Milwaukee, where all of the students this year were on vouchers, the school cannot afford a psychologist, speech therapist or special education teachers, said the school secretary, Nicole Johnson.
“When we get the children and start working with them, a month or two of school goes by, and we start to see the problems, and see we need to get some help for these children — something is wrong,” Johnson said.
She said parents may be referred to schools with special education services.
For Trinity, the transition from a choice school to Milwaukee’s Gilbert Stuart Elementary, a public school, has been good. She has a formal educational plan, is in a small class to help with her anxiety and has a teacher with special education training.