Parents of Special Education Students Protest Minnesota’s Neo-Voucher Proposal

March 27, 2017

Minneapolis-based attorney Sarah McLaren should be forgiven for dissolving into tears while testifying at a Minnesota Education Policy Committee hearing in early February, since she had not planned on speaking out that day. Instead, she was on her way to work on February 9 when she heard a brief news report on public radio, detailing a new tax credit scholarship, or neo-voucher,” education bill that was moving through the state legislature.

“Right away,” she recalled over coffee recently, “I turned my car around, drove to the Senate Office Building and testified that day.” In a video recording of McLaren’s testimony, she can be seen dressed in a black and white speckled suit jacket, clutching a framed picture of her six-year old daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, McLaren’s only child, has autism spectrum disorder; because of that, McLaren says, “it will always be more expensive to educate my daughter.” 

This realization is what compelled McLaren to make a detour to the Senate Office Building on February 9. Once there, McLaren says she “surprised everyone in the room” by delivering an unscripted, at times tearful rebuke of Republican representative Ron Kresha’s tax credit scholarship bill. Kresha’s bill, whose roots can be traced to similar, “cookie cutter” ALEC bills being proposed around the country, seeks to give wealthy individuals and corporations in Minnesota a tax break–up to $35 million, statewide–for donations to private school scholarship funds. These funds are then supposed to help lower (and middle) income students afford tuition payments. 

Proponents of this approach bristle at any obvious comparison to school voucher plans, which drain money directly out of a state’s general education fund–after tax funds have been collected. Vouchers have proven to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, leading school choice advocates to instead propose Kresha-like tax breaks that divert money from the general education fund before it is collected. Such schemes can then be considered voluntary “tax incentive plans,” rather than outright, distasteful voucher programs.

Either way, the public school funding pool would take a hit, while religious and private schools stand to benefit. While observing a January rally for the tax credit bill, I spoke with a rural Minnesotan who helps run a small Lutheran school. One reason he is so in favor of Kresha’s bill is competition from charter schools. Because charters are free, he explained to me, they are siphoning students from the Lutheran school’s already limited enrollment base. This taps into one reason religious schools tend to favor these tax credit scholarship schemes: survival.

Catholic schools in particular have been out front about how such diversions of public tax dollars could benefit their schools:

Enrollment in US Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students, and in the last 20 years, more than 1,500 Catholic schools have shuttered. Supporters say that without an infusion of funds – either in the form of vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs – the very future of Catholic education in this country is at risk.

“Catholic schools look to tax credits to save them,”  The Crux, 2015

But McLaren wasn’t drawn to the neo voucher issue because she is opposed to religious or private schools. Instead, she insists that expanding school choice schemes will leave children like hers behind. As an infant and toddler, McLaren’s daughter attended a private center near her home–a “well-regarded program,” McLaren recalls, that billed itself as being “experts in early childhood care and education.” Along the way, Eleanor’s as yet undiagnosed autism began to surface, through biting incidents and other behavior issues.

Around age three, Eleanor’s autism was identified, and it soon became clear that the private program was neither equipped, nor particularly interested, in adapting to her needs. McLaren remembers being called to an “urgent” meeting about Eleanor’s behavior, where she was told that the school “had to think of the other children.” Eleanor was biting other students and parents were not happy about it.

“It was distressing,” McLaren notes. “The focus was immediately on Eleanor as the problem, and nothing about the environment” at the school. The school did not seem invested in supporting Eleanor, and staff were perhaps puzzled by the girl’s behavior. “She seems to repeat our questions a lot,” they told McLaren–with little apparent awareness of how to work with a child with autism. The expectation seemed to be that it was up to Eleanor’s parents to “fix” her behavior. (McLaren believes these messages stigmatize special education, and may make families reluctant to speak out.)

McLaren then describes an up and down journey, of first getting Eleanor placed with a preschool teacher who had some autism experience. When that teacher left the school, it became clear that Eleanor was struggling. “She was overwhelmed,” McLaren says, and responded by “removing herself from the group and spending the whole day alone.” Soon, McLaren and her husband moved Eleanor to Fraser, a Richfield preschool and childcare center that provides services and support–including access to “typical” peers–for special needs children. (Chicago teacher and activist, Xian Franzinger Barrett, has written about how low-income students of color–without access to extra resources–stand to lose the most when public schools are underfunded.)

From there, Eleanor graduated to kindergarten and has been attending a public school in her suburban neighborhood. McLaren quickly asserts that, at both Fraser and Eleanor’s public school, the message has always been, “How can we support her?” In response, Eleanor is thriving. She is at or near grade level, thanks to what McLaren says is “generous support for mainstreaming.” 

That support, though, is expensive. Eleanor’s school provides her with extra personnel, skilled at working with special education students, and Eleanor has access to a variety of strategies that make her school day possible. McLaren says these strategies include “access to sensory tools (headphones, chewy, weighted vest), and breaks as needed. For example, at group time, Eleanor can sit in a child-sized rocking chair instead of on the floor with peers since that is difficult for her.” Eleanor is also allowed regular breaks from the classroom, including “trampoline jumps” in the school’s special education resource room.

Rather than an indulgence, McLaren calls these breaks “essential.” And seeing how Eleanor has benefitted from an inclusive, supportive environment has turned McLaren into a fighter. In January, McLaren watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s cringeworthy confirmation hearing, and was appalled by DeVos’s “stunning lack of knowledge about educating kids with different needs.” (DeVos infamously displayed little awareness of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects the needs of special education students.)

McLaren then knew she had to “get more public” with her concerns because private schools do not Image result for individualized education planhave to educate students like Eleanor. “Choice sounds good,” McLaren acknowledges, “but I don’t think people realize that private schools do the choosing.” She maintains that religious schools, for example, do not have to follow Minnesota’s Human Rights law, while private schools do not have to adhere to federal special education mandates. The fallout, McLaren fears, will be more segregation in education, with “high needs kids left behind” and public schools left with even fewer resources.

McLaren returned to the Capitol one week after her first, spontaneous shot at testifying against Kresha’s bill, and came armed with–again–Eleanor’s framed picture, as well as some support of her own. Flanking McLaren on February 16, when she spoke before the House Tax Committee, was a cohort of fellow parents of students with special needs, as well as representatives from special education advocacy groups like PACER.

If you’ve got a few minutes, and a handkerchief nearby, watch these parents and special education advocates stumble through their testimony, doing their best to be civil and resilient while pointing out what seems painfully obvious:

The children that need the resources most desperately in special education are those that will pay the price if you divert money away from public school resources. That’s why we speak against this.

–Don McNeil, PACER Center representative and parent of special needs students

Minnesota’s tax credit scholarship bill is currently in limbo. It sailed through various policy and finance committees, thanks to party-line votes, and may be included in an end of session omnibus bill. Governor Mark Dayton, however, has remained opposed to such “voucher-light” proposals.

*Some perspective from Texas, where similar bills have been proposed:

Proponents claim donations will help families pay their private school tuition and that will relieve the enrollment burden on public schools or provide access to good schools for disadvantaged students. That’s the sales pitch. In reality, the result is to hand tax dollars over to private schools, increasing the financial strain on public schools and possibly increasing local property taxes in the process to make up for lost funding.

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