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The So-Called ‘Burden’ of Serving

Pupils With Disabilities

A burden.

That is what a Wisconsin state representative called children in special education at a conference of Wisconsin school board members and school administrators in March 2013. A burden. The state representative was part of a panel of state legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, who were commenting on education proposals in the proposed state budget.

This conference, A Day at the Capitol, provides local school officials a chance annually to listen to legislators and for legislators to listen to us. The state representative’s comment was in the context of an item in the budget that would give parents of special-needs children a voucher or “scholarship” they could use to enroll their children in nonpublic schools.

Although there were standing microphones on the floor, it was announced there would be no time for questions or comments from the audience. Yet when I heard the state representative’s offensive comments, I was compelled to speak. When he was finished, I rose and commandeered the microphone. I was angry, and no one was going to stop me from speaking.

Shameful Defunding

As a veteran educator of 30-plus years, the past 20 as a superintendent, I am extremely alarmed at the movement to defund public education. While proponents of special-needs scholarships tout parental rights and choice as their reason for vouchers, the consequences are harmful for special needs children and public education. By claiming these children are a burden on public school districts, the state representative was essentially saying, “Hey, if you don’t have to pay to educate these children, we don’t have to give you as much money. Let’s do it cheaper by giving parents a voucher.”

Frankly, I give the state representative an A+ for his honesty. For some advocates of special-needs scholarships, it’s about the money. Give money to parents of special-needs children so they can choose nonpublic schools, and we can reduce the financial impact of educating these children. Cloak it behind parent choice and parent rights. Shameful? You bet!

Administrators need to be vigilant about the never-ending drive to privatize education. Recent proposals in Congress encourage states to establish choice programs for students with disabilities and enable states that already have disability choice programs to expand them using federal dollars.

When I grabbed the microphone, I said, “By the way, my name is Dr. Mel Lightner. I’ve been a school superintendent for 20 years in the state of Wisconsin — and I am alarmed and shamed at the movement to privatize and defund public education. I think that’s the national movement, and at least two of the people up there are part of that movement in my eyes.”

I told the legislators I also was the parent of a special-needs child, before adding: “My question is this: Special education ‘scholarships’ or vouchers, private school vouchers, we have a mass of Wisconsinites who have come to you and said, ‘Let’s do this’? I don’t see it. I don’t see it in my community, I don’t see it in the state, I don’t think you’re being responsive to the Wisconsin people. You’re part of a national movement that is hunkered down and coming through with massive private dollars. I think that’s where you are, and my question is ‘Is that not the case?’”

Relinquishing Rights

My emotional remarks were fueled by the fact that my young-adult son has special needs. As a student with learning disabilities, he has benefited tremendously from caring, skilled public educators. Federal special education laws have provided special-needs students with rights that enable them to meet the challenges they face — the right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, an individualized education program and due process.

Parents who send their children to private schools often unknowingly relinquish these rights and return them to public schools, often in the middle of the school year. We must accept these students with open arms even though we have no money allocated to serve them. Why would we establish programs that allow us the rights of children with disabilities to be abandoned?

What can be done to stop these so-called scholarships? First of all, call a spade a spade. It isn’t about parent choice or a better education for children. It’s about the money — plain and simple. I encourage my fellow administrators to speak and write vociferously to law makers. Let your community members know the impact on their schools and children. I know the issue will be brought up again and again.

We cannot lose this fight. Our children depend on us to be their champions.

Mel Lightner is superintendent of the Grafton School District in Grafton, Wis. E-mail: mlightner@grafton.k12.wi.us. Twitter: @MelLightner