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Uppity Wisconsin - Progressive Webmasters

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March 14, 2007


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Beth Swedeen

Your bottom line is correct: citizens and public school districts in Wisconsin need to start getting tough with the public servants who are starving our public schools or we will inherit a society that is increasingly dependent on support, rather than one full of contributors.

Some fact clarifications:
-- MMSD and other districts around the state CAN and DO cut special education services, often at a higher proportion than that of regular education in any given year. Between $2.5 and $4 million of the proposed $10 million cuts to MMSD this year will be to special education. In the budget cycle three years ago, MMSD cut 72 FTE's of special education support. It has subsequently made special ed cuts each year in recent years.
-- Cutting special education services under an effective inclusive model cuts direct classroom supports that affect EVERY student. Many schools in Madison are effectively using a team teaching approach that maximizes the resources in classrooms by putting 2, 3 or even 4 adults in classrooms (regular educators, special educators, aides and therapists such as speech/language) in flexible ways that support all the students. Bottom line: ALL kids are be affected when special education services are cut.
-- Families with means who are moving to Madison with children who have autism are NOT moving for direct services from the Waisman Center, which actually provides very few day-to-day direct services for children outside its inclusive preschool program (which is fee-for-service). They ARE moving for Wisconsin's Medicaid waiver, which provides intensive services for 3 years for children under the age of 8 (up to 40 hours/week). Wisconsin and California are unique in offering this program. Who has THE MOST kids with autism in the state in sheer numbers? Verona.
-- As the number of students identified with autism increase, the number of kids labeled with cognitive disabilities has decreased. The number jumps we are seeing in the Madison area are, to some degree or another, being experienced across the country, regardless of what services are offered in any given part of the country.

While I realize that the intent of this article is not to "blame the kids," comments like "special education cannot be cut" are both inaccurate and DO lead to increasing numbers of the general public pointing to kids with disabilities as the problem. With that increased public animosity comes the general assumption that kids with disabilities will never be contributors, taxpayers or leaders in their communities. It is actually possible to be academically, musically, artistically or socially gifted and still have a disability.

This either-or mentality around special education vs. regular education deflects from the more salient message that the state government and the feds need to start paying their fair share.

Of course, no one (least of all legislators) talks about what the state could be paying if, instead of attending public schools, kids with significant disabilities were institutionalized (current price tag at Wisconsin Central Center: $300 a day and more. That's $54,000/year for just the 180-day WIsconsin public school year, or nearly $110,000 for year-round care.) Not to mention what we would be losing from a humanistic perspective by sending our most vulnerable children away from their homes, communities, families and school friends.

Joint Finance Committee hearings start next week. I believe the closest one is in Arlington March 21. Madison now has two members on Joint Finance. Let's hope they see plenty of their constituents waiting to testify next week.

Jess Wundrun

Could someone please put this into perspective vis a vis the No Child Left Behind Act? As a parent of a cognitively "normal" kindergartner, I wouldn't want to light the torches at the state level just to be further punished at the federal level.

In my daughter's class are twin boys, non-english speaking autistic. I am proud of the work our school does with these children and because of them our 68% score on the NCLB's is not so awful to me because I know the hard work and diverse backgrounds that tell the rest of that story.

Also, will private schools in Milwaukee take these special needs students with just a 5k coupon like any other student? This makes the siphoning off of funds from our public schools that much more perverse.

I hope someone can address these questions. If I wasn't so confused I'd probably be really outraged.

Kathleen Fish

Paul and Beth,

Could you provide clarification regarding your statements regarding the District's 'ability' to cut spending in this area? Paul, does your statement refer to a legal ruling or statute, or is it based on MMSD policy?

My understanding matches Beth's statement, and Supt. Rainwater's 2007-2008 budget document released last week states that special education cuts are once again being proposed. If the District cannot legally lower spending or cut services, have they faced legal challenges in this regard?

Jess Wundrun's comment reminds me of a variety of friends from around the city with children who have special education needs. It seems that from school to school within MMSD, special education resources vary considerably, and families must fight to find the right school for their individual child based on the individual school's resources, not the District's as a whole. If this is the case, it's certainly lousy policy. I also wonder if it is legal.

Any additional information or insight appreciated. Thanks.

Beth Swedeen

No, parochial and private schools have no obligation to accept ANY voucher. They definitely are not typically taking them for kids with extra needs. Likewise, private schools of all kinds are not obligated to accept any student and are not responsible for implementing any type of specialized plan.

In fact, the voucher schools in Milwaukee aren't accepting vouchers for much more than the "cream of the crop:" among the most highly-movivated of the small percentage of MPS students who can even get a voucher.

I'm no fan of NCLB, but I do think the focus on examining ALL students' performance has, in many cases, at least held schools accountable. It used to be not uncommon to see high performance numbers for many schools, but then when you looked at the fine print on what percentage of students took the test, you saw huge variance: In some districts, 3 percent didn't get tested; in others it would be 20 percent or more. Not that I'm a fan of HOW they monitor progress....but high-stakes testing is an entirely different set of posts!

Kathleen, you are right.

There is nothing in the state or federal law, or in any school district's policy, that assures a certain level of supports or funding for students with disabilities. Likewise, there is no assurance by law that when budget cuts hit a district, that special education services will be preserved. The concern is that when you approach 20 students (some with very high needs) for every special educator or therapists with caseloads of 40 children and more, there is no way that every child's needs can be met in accordance with the original plan devised for serving that child, known as the Individual Education Plan.

EVERYTHING is determined on a case-by-case basis using a team approach in developing the IEP. When you look across schools in MMSD and across districts, states and the country, you will see highly-varied levels of services for kids with very similar disabilities. In some cases, children are basically thrown in a regular classroom and expected to sink or swim. In others, services actually block a child's ability to participate. We took our child out of a school that wanted to provide special services all day long and moved her to a more inclusive school where she actually received fewer direct services and supports. Her performance (and happiness and sense of belonging) significantly improved.

The goal of an IEP is for the team to look at what the child actually needs to be a successful class participant and an active member of his or her school community. Some children truly need direct adult support most of the time. For most, that is not needed. For most students, supports can fade/diminish with time, skill development and increased emphasis on independence. In effective inclusive classrooms, the addition of students with disabilities can bring additional resources into the room to support all students.

Today, a mom of a child with a disability told me about another mom's appreciation for the extra speech support in the room. The second little girl didn't "qualify" for services, but had some articulation challenges. The speech therapist was able to focus some expertise on the second child as she worked in a small group with the first child and several classmates who don't have disabilities. Oh, and both little girls have become close friends.

Paula Ferrara-Parrish

Jess - Federal law states that in the U.S. every child has a right to a free and appropriate education no matter if the child is gifted & talented, average, or below average. Some children will cost more to educate than others. There is an illusion that kids come with their abilities and needs stamped on their foreheads. As you have stated, we educate students with a huge range of intellectual, emotional, physical, linguistic, and economic needs. In special educaton, these needs are defined by arbitrary cut-offs and definitions. The premise is that these categories can be used as predictors of education costs to be incurred by specific disability and need. Thirty years ago many of these students were kept in residential facilities that came with high price tags and questionable human rights issues. We have come a long way in education by recognizing that the children we educate cannot be neatly classified into a category or definition (eventhough funding is still by category). They present with a variety of abilities and needs. One of these needs is to be with their peers. Federal laws recognize this need, and individual educational plans (IEP's) are written especially with this in mind. Students are to be educated first and foremost with their general ed. peers. When the federal government first enacted these laws (now known as IDEA), they were also to provide the states with monies that would make specialized education feasable. This money would then be passed on to the school districts according to their categorial special ed. needs. The federal government has not kept its promise to the states and in turn the states have not kept their funding promises to our school districts. The percent of funding for special education costs has decreased significantly since the 80's.
The federal law (IDEA) mandates free and appropriate education to all. It is set up to protect the individual learning needs and rights of children. On the other hand, No Child Left Behind (NCLB)does not operate on that principle. Basically it assumes that all children are college bound. In essence it treats all kids as equals in that it doesn't acknowledge their differences. All children are thrown into the same learning "pot" and they lose their individuality. Schools are not seen as communities of learners with a variety of abilities, interests, and needs, but instead they are seen as a total 'score' on a questionable snapshot of a test. The sad part is that each state was allowed to present its own form of student evaluation, and there is quite a bit of variance state-to-state on how students in special education fit into that equation. Some states have ways to credit those students whose learning objectives do not readily fit into academic standards and benchmarks. Schools are financially credited for the progress these students make on measurable IEP goals in an equal manner to that of standard curricular learners.
Unfortunately Wisconsin is not one of these states. While our state does offer an alternative evaluation for the purpose of NCLB scoring, it does not treat the childen who take this assessment in an equal manner to their peers. This is how Wisconsin schools are funded according to scoring on state tests: Advanced - 3 pts; proficient - 2 pts; basic - 1 pt.; minimal - .5 pt.; alternative test - 0 pts. As you can see, it literally does not "pay" to score certain special education students on the alternative assessment that truely tracks their progress. Even one darkened-in answer on the standardized state test, although it may be incorrect, will bring a score of "minimal" and weighting of .5 to the school's total. This type of assessment and scoring takes a law such as NCLB, which is not as effective as it could be, to a new level of absurdity. It doesn't take into consideration the "needs" of the children or those of the school.
So Jess, basically it all boils down to the original premise and law. Every kid in the USA has the right to a free and appropriate education no matter what their ability or economic status. Some children will cost more to educate than others. All children are our future for better or for worse. We, as the current adults in this society, have a duty to provide the funding for this education. It's time we hold federal, state and local feet to the fire. Education is costly any way you slice it, but so is any worthwhile investment.
Beth has done a nice job of explaining special education delivery in Madison.

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