Special needs parents in Wisconsin got some good news last month when the controversial Special Needs Scholarship program got voted through the Joint Finance Committee after several failed attempts. It's part of this year's budget, and is still waiting to be signed into law—but things look good for this program, which will allow students with special needs to use public school funds to attend the private school of their choice. One of my friends, Dani Rossa, has been working along with several other parents for many years to see this voucher program pass. A mom to two girls with autism, ages 14 and 10, Dani gave up her career to care for her girls and help them get intensive therapy. Her persistence in the face of many legislative hurdles and her devotion to helping her girls and kids like them get an education that works best for them has always inspired me, and I asked Dani to share a bit about the process...
How difficult was it to get this Scholarship passed in Wisconsin?
It has been a long 3 years! I have been to the Capitol many times—sometimes with my kids (that's me at the Capitol with my oldest daughter in the picture above). I've talked to reporters, testified to many Assembly and Senate committees, as well as to the Joint Finance Committee when it was included, and later pulled from the state budget two years ago. I am thankful there was a Senator who understood that children with special needs deserve options too and who kept pushing this legislation forward.
What tangible benefits will the Scholarship provide for your children, and others with special needs?
It will allow us to keep them in a private school placement (where they attend with the ABA therapists who have worked with them for many years). In this school setting, my girls are getting the education they need for the long term. Right now, we've been paying for that out-of-pocket, and it adds up quickly. The SN Scholarship will not totally cover the cost for their individualized education and support, but it's a step in the right direction. Hopefully this will allow other families to look for other options for their children as well.
What advice would you offer other parents who'd also like to get similar legislation passed in their states?
Find a person in the legislature that is sympathetic to your cause—seek someone who is willing to go to bat for your children. Keep putting yourself out there and have patience.
Any other thoughts?
I know this is a divisive issue, and I'm not simply anti-public school or totally pro school choice. I just think that each child, with disabilities or not, deserves to have a school placement that works for them. If that is a public school, great! If they need other options outside of their resident public school, they should have access to them.
As I reported in this earlier blog post, seven other states offer similar programs. If you're working on getting a program like this passed in your state, or if you'd just like more information, leave a comment or send me a message and I'll be happy to ask Dani or the other parents for tips, ideas, and answer for all your education options questions.
Jamie Pacton is on the road this week, taking her kids on a cross-country move, a modern day Oregon Trail. She still drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Image provided by Dani Rossa