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    To:      Representatives Robin Vos, John Nygren, and Mary Felzkowski Members of the Joint Committee on Finance

     Gov. Scott Walker

From:  Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin

Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin

Autism Society of Wisconsin

Community Advocates for Public Education--Middleton-Cross Plains

Area School District Disability Rights Wisconsin

Family Voices of Wisconsin

Parents for Public Schools of Milwaukee

School Administrators Alliance

School Funding Reform for Wisconsin, Stevens Point

Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations

The Arc of Wisconsin

WI FACETS

Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools

Wisconsin Association of School Boards

Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities

Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services

Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired

Wisconsin Family Ties

 

Date: June 15,2017

Re: Items #23 and #27 in the Assembly Republican Education Budget Motion of June6

The above organizations that represent and support students, families, and public schools have grave concerns with proposed state budget changes to two programs that impact students with disabilities in Wisconsin: the Special Needs Scholarship Program and the open enrollment program for special education. The late-breaking motion has been proposed in the absence of stakeholder input, and would have serious implications for school districts, parents and students. This memo outlines our concerns and raises numerous questions. We believe that a closer scrutiny will reveal that these proposed changes are unworkable and undo a broad consensus, and that they should be removed altogether from consideration for the 2017/19 state budget.

 

Item 23. Special Needs Scholarship Program

Under current law, private schools that accept children with disabilities under the special needs scholarship program receive a fixed payment amount of $12,000. Item #23 in the Assembly proposal would substitute a complicated and deeply problematic payment process involving the development of cost estimates by the child’s school district of residence and comparison with itemized cost statements or estimates from the private school, plus considerable involvement by the Department of Public Instruction.

The administrative burden of creating both the estimates and the itemized cost statements stands to be considerable for all parties involved: the resident district, the private school, and the Department of Public Instruction.

The proposal tasks school districts with providing estimates that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create. This proposal would require the school district of residence to develop cost estimates for students who are not currently enrolled in the resident district. This could include students who are currently attending private schools using special needs scholarships, some of whom have not attended public school for up to five years. Furthermore, the proposal requires resident districts to provide estimates for students who have not yet enrolled in any school, and perhaps have not even been identified as a child in need of special education.

In addition, the proposal misinterprets the function of re-evaluation by the student’s IEP team in the resident district. Re-evaluation is the process of determining whether or not a student is still in need of special education services; the creation of an individualized education program (IEP) is an additional step and one that is not required of the district. However, without creating a new IEP, the district will have no basis for creating a new cost estimate.

The summary provided in the June 6, 2017 Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo provides no indication when this proposed change would take effect, thus schools are left to wonder what system would be in place this fall should the proposed change be enacted.

Overall, the proposal reflected in item #23 highlights and exacerbates an existing flaw in the current special needs scholarship program. Schools participating in the special needs scholarship program are not mandated to provide special education and related services to any student participating in their program. The rights and protections of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) do not follow the student to the private school. Yet, the changes proposed by Item #23 will allow private schools to receive potentially much larger sums of money from public school districts based on services that the public school would be required to provide by the child’s IEP under the federal IDEA law but that the private school would not be required to provide.

 

The following questions must be answered in order to fully evaluate Item #23:

•       Who will actually do the work at the district level for developing cost estimates?

•       What administrative burden will the complexities of this system (i.e., the burden of reviewing the private school’s financial statement for each special needs scholarship student and determining if they were less than the itemized statement or estimate prepared by the school district and, if so, reducing the payment to the private school) place upon the Department of Public Instruction, and what additional staffing at DPI will be required to do the work?

•       How will cost estimates be handled for current special needs scholarship students, including for those who were already attending private schools when they applied for the 2016-17 scholarships?

•       How will it even be possible for a school district develop an estimate for a child who has not been identified as a child needing special education?

•       Will the private school refund the difference between projected costs and actual costs for the initial year in which a pupil participates in the special needs scholarship program or do they get to keep this “windfall”?

•       What is the projected fiscal effect of the program for the state budget?

 

Item 27. Open Enrollment Transfer Amount – Special Education

In 2014-15, stakeholders gathered over the course of a year to discuss steps to eliminate what were alleged to be discriminatory practices or impediments to open enrollment for students with disabilities. This lengthy stakeholder process produced the following changes that resulted in improvements in the open enrollment system for students with disabilities and their families:

 

•       Elimination of undue financial burden as a basis for denying open enrollment transfers

•       Changes to the determination of space availability by school districts

•       Setting a standard rate of $12,000 for students receiving special education services

•       Changes to recoupment of high-cost special education aid (needs funds) for receiving school districts. (These recommended changes were not adopted by the Legislature. In fact, the Legislature reduced the reimbursement school districts could qualify to receive from 90 percent to 70 percent)

Stakeholders included school boards, school administrators, special education administrators, and advocacy groups. The $12,000 amount was carefully considered and reflected an average statewide cost to educate students receiving special education services. The uniform transfer amount coupled with other changes identified above also allowed parents an option to transfer their child easily from one school district to another without a battle. These changes just took effect this school year and to our collective knowledge there has, as yet, been no systematic analysis of the changes or their impact.

The Assembly proposal, with its new layers of complexity, would be onerous for all parties involved.  It would also involve the Department of Public Instruction to a far greater degree than it presently is and place the DPI in the position of referee or arbiter.  In addition, it potentially sets the two school districts in direct conflict with the parent, who may be left in the middle to negotiate a compromise.There are many factors that can influence the cost calculations by a school district. School districts’ costs to provide special education may vary due to the number of students with disabilities, the size of school district, transportation costs, and delivery models for special education. It is difficult and perhaps impossible to think there will be an apples-to-apples comparison for service delivery for a student from one school district to another.

 

The new proposal also re-introduces what some view as the potential for discrimination when it comes to students with disabilities, the very thing stakeholders sought to eliminate when they created the current open enrollment system.

The current open enrollment system offers a single payment amount for students in regular education and another single payment amount for students in special education. In both cases, the cost to educate a student may vary from grade to grade and district to district. Data shows the cost to educate a first-grader is less than the cost to educate a tenth-grader, yet the open enrollment transfer amount is the same for both. The current method treats both students with disabilities and students without disabilities in a similar manner.

The following questions must be fully answered in order to evaluate Item #27:

•       Who will actually do the work at the district level for developing cost estimates?

•       What administrative burden will the complexity of this system place (i.e. the burden of reviewing the itemized statements of cost or estimates of cost of the resident and non-resident districts and adjusting the payments, either in the current year or for the following year) upon the Department of Public Instruction, and what additional staffing at DPI will be required to do the work?

•       What will happen if one of the parties disagrees with the itemized statement or estimate?

•       Can a student be denied open enrollment because of a district disagreement?

•       How can parents protect their rights under IDEA if changes are made to an IEP based on financial issues?

•       What if the delivery models between districts are so different that an apples-to-apples comparison is not feasible?

•       What is the projected fiscal effect of the program for the state budget?

Again, our organizations have grave concerns about these proposals, particularly in the absence of a fiscal estimate and a full analysis that answers the questions above. No proposal with this level of uncertainty and unnecessary burden should be moving forward in the 2017-19 state budget.