If you are a Wisconsin GOP legislator these days, the most important lesson you have been taught by your leaders is never to tell anyone what you're up to, especially your constituents or the citizens who will be affected by the bills you are trying to sneak through the legislature. One problem with that strategy is you look really, really foolish when your secrecy is exposed - especially when it's exposed by a true grassroots organization chaired by determined families motivated to protect the rights of children with special needs.
The latest appalling embarrassment in the plutocratic clown show at Wisconsin's Capitol is the sneaky re-introduction of the special needs voucher bill, yet another ALEC-sponsored piratization/profitization attack on public education, once again targeting some of the most vulnerable students in the state.
Just after one version of the ALECky proposal was pulled from the 2013/15 state budget (victory?), the GOP made noises about bringing it back as a separate bill in the fall. But there was complete silence after that. As they spoke of their priorities for the legislative session in the new year - not a whisper. There was no word of any special needs voucher bill circulating for co-sponsorship.
Then one day, there was a teeny, tiny addition to the Capitol calendar. It was posted the Friday before the MLK Jr. holiday weekend: Special needs scholarship bill press conference, Tuesday 1/21, at noon.
Disability and education advocacy organizations in Wisconsin were apparently watching out for just such shenanigans. By Saturday morning the following alert from the grassroots parent organization Stop Special Needs Vouchers was circulating on Facebook and email:
Alert! Special Needs Vouchers to Be Re-Introduced on Tues. 1/21. Parents, students, supporters: Can you join Stop Special Needs Vouchers at the Capitol in Madison this Tuesday noon, Jan. 21?The alert also contained a link to a stunning developing story. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was hot on the trail of a disturbing tale of educational failure and grift. As outlined in Milwaukee "New Hustler Academy" Voucher School Closes in the Dead of Night by AnnieJo, a private voucher school called LifeSkills Academy had suddenly closed up shop overnight in mid-December, leaving 66 students out in the Wisconsin winter to find new schools. Of those 66 students, it was revealed, just 1 (yes, that's ONE) tested proficient in reading and math. The state had paid LifeSkills Academy over two million dollars in taxpayer funded vouchers through the years, including $200,000 to cover the current semester. The students went back to the public schools, but the money did not.
In light of the stealthy special needs voucher bill, what happened next is simply astounding. The proprietors of LifeSkills Academy went to Florida, bought a big house in a gated community, and founded LifeSkills Academy II, which they got approved as a McKay school - to take Florida's fraud-ridden version of special needs vouchers.
The story connecting LifeSkills Academy II, their special needs voucher con in Florida, and the re-introduction of the special needs vouchers ran on the morning of the post-holiday voucher-introduction press conference. On the front page of the print edition. Above the fold.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education confirmed that the school in Daytona Beach had received about $2,700 so far this year for students participating in the state's special-needs voucher program.The press conference itself turned out to be a brief affair, twenty minutes long - the only people at the front of the room were six speakers, two parents and the four GOP co-
Though it's a small amount of public money, critics following the story from Wisconsin were aghast.
"The idea of such a school simply declaring (itself an) expert in special education should send shivers down the spine of every parent of a student with disability-related educational needs," said Joanne Juhnke, a Madison parent and the chair of a grass-roots group called Stop Special Needs Vouchers.
You can see some of each in the following video, which won't embed but is worth watching:
This story may yet have a happy ending, though I hesitate to use the term "happy ending" having recently called the Wisconsin Capitol building the state's most elegant whorehouse.
The Journal Sentinel article that reported on the voucher-introduction contained this welcome news:
[K]ey state senators signaled the bill would be a no-go for many reasons, including that a similar measure was negotiated out of Gov. Scott Walker's 2013-'15 budget, and that a recent poor-performing Milwaukee voucher school closed and opened a new branch in Florida bolstered by special-needs vouchers in that state.And then there was this:
"Right now, (this bill) is not on the front burner or on my list," Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) said.
Sara Archibald, education policy adviser for state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill "would not go forward" in the Senate.So, the bill looks to be pretty much DOA.
Archibald referenced the recent case of voucher school operators in Milwaukee who shut down their poor-performing school midyear only to open a private school in Florida bolstered by the special-needs voucher program in that state.
That school, if it were still operating in Wisconsin, would qualify to receive special-education vouchers under the legislation, according to DPI [the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the agency that is tasked with supervising K-12 education in the state but was not even consulted by the authors of the bill...GGB].
"We feel that it's a better bill than it was," Archibald said. "But it's still not something (Olsen) is interested in bringing to Wisconsin."
And if LifeSkills Academy were still operating in Wisconsin, they'd qualify to receive special education vouchers under the legislation.
Don't Wisconsin's GOP legislators even talk to each other?