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home : opinions : opinions
August 17, 2019

7/13/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our View
Evers, you're wrong and you lied

In signing the new state budget, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed out grants totaling $250,000 over the next biennium for the Lakeland STAR School/Academy. (Full disclosure: Gregg Walker, the publisher of The Lakeland Times and The Northwoods River News, is president of the Lakeland STAR governance board.)

That's his right to do so, no matter our desires. But in doing so, the governor reached down into the depths of dishonesty to try and label a meaningful grant for a public school with 40% minority and 90% low income standouts he doesn't like ideologically (because it offers parents both a choice and a chance for their children) as a special-interest favor for a specific school.

The governor must not be allowed to get away with such deception, and we're not about to let him.

Specifically, the budget the Legislature sent to the governor included grants to STAR for $250,000 and only if STAR Academy raised $250,000 of its own money would it be granted the money for the 2019-21 biennium. In his veto message, Evers said he was vetoing them because he objected "to providing state grants to specific schools" and "that state funding decisions should not pick winners and losers among our children."

First things first, we wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

That's why, before the STAR grant provision ever made its way into the Legislature's budget, STAR officials and board members went to the governor as he was preparing his initial budget proposal and asked him to include funding for special-needs alternative schools statewide - funding not just for STAR but both funding and a process by which every community that wanted a school like STAR could have one.

The STAR Academy proposal would have enabled schools for children with autism and other special needs - for students who cannot thrive in a typical general education classroom setting - to open and flourish statewide.

The governor ignored the proposal.

That proposal - handled directly to the governor's staff at a special meeting - would have provided funding for up to $35,000 for each student in such a school, in addition to regular per capita school aid, to pay for the full cost of an adequate special-needs education. We should point out, just last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must pay that full cost.

The criteria for establishing such a school and qualifying for the funding was simple and straightforward. Because these schools must be community and parent-driven - it's all about a chance for a choice - we recommended that the governor include three criteria.

First, on the community level, communities must be able to secure $150,000 in private funding for facilities and other related overhead. On the parent level, the proposed school must be able to demonstrate parental support for such an endeavor, as indicated by a certain amount of pre-applications for their diagnosed children. We recommended interest demonstrated by at least 10 to 20 families.

Finally, only schools in which at least 80% of the student population had Individualized Education Plans would qualify.

Such funding for children with autism and other special needs is not uncommon. Ohio provides outright scholarships of $35,000 for children with autism. Those organizing STAR preferred the model used in Minnesota, and based the proposal to the governor on that state's funding structure.

But, again, the governor ignored the proposal. He ignored children with autism and other special needs all across the state of Wisconsin.

Bear in mind that the governor's decision had nothing to do with money. The governor's budget as he originally presented it to the Legislature would have increased overall spending on schools by $1.4 billion, and it would have boosted spending on special education by almost $600 million.

Our proposal would have taken only a tiny sliver of that. Just a $5 million grant to a statewide program allowing communities to establish specialized schools for autism and other special needs - voluntary programs chosen by parents, who could still opt to put their children in traditional general education classrooms - would have allowed up to 12 such schools to open in the next two years alone.

Evers obviously did not want that to happen.

So the governor's decision had nothing to do with money, and it had nothing to do with evidence-based success, either. Specialized schools for children with autism have flourished from New York to Texas to California, and Lionsgate in next-door Minnesota is world-renowned for its success, and the reason STAR was modeled after it.

In its first year, STAR has earned its own accolades. Gov. Evers had to travel no farther than to Minocqua to see the tangible success this school is having.

The truth is, until STAR came along, Wisconsin had been an outlier among states in trying alternative and diverse approaches to special-needs education, failing miserably. By vetoing STAR's grants, and refusing to entertain our proposal to fund such schools statewide, the governor is trying to keep it that way.

His veto and his deliberate rejection of our statewide proposal had nothing to do with money or evidence-based success and everything to do with his ideology. Gov. Evers, always a Democratic puppet of the teachers' union and the education establishment, has long opposed choice and charter schools.

That's ironic because in Minnesota it was Democrats who made Lionsgate, and state funding for Lionsgate, a reality.

It's bizarre, too, because in vetoing the funds for STAR, the governor, who likes to embrace social justice in his rhetoric, decided to punish a school in which the student population is 40% minority and in which 90% of students are low income and qualify for the free and reduced schools meals program.

So much for equal opportunity, fairness, and compassion. STAR is not about privilege at all, it turns out, just the opposite: It's about empowering parents at all income levels to give their children the education they think is best for their children.

Simply put, the governor is the one picking winners and losers by denying parents and families a choice, and imposing on everyone a one-size-fits-all vision of special-needs education.

He only wants increased funding for special needs education if that money is spent on traditional mainstreaming approaches, which, while they work well for many children with special needs, don't work at all for so many others. He only wants to increase special education funding if it fits his vision of what education must be, no matter what parents think their children need.

It's bad enough that Evers ignored our proposal that the state actively embrace alternative schools for children with special needs (which, by the way, the Republicans also did in the last budget). It's bad enough that he is trying with his veto to sabotage a successful school such as Lakeland STAR School/Academy.

But it's immoral that he seeks to do so by lying about it. Those who have worked so hard for STAR believe that funding for the school is not only required by the law of the land, but a necessary way to advance special needs education.

Because we believe in our school so much, we asked the governor to provide every community that wants and needs such a school with a way to have one.

He refused. He not only refused, but dishonestly tried to portray that attempt as a greedy special-interest grab.

That he should lie so brazenly is unforgivable. It turns out Tony Evers has turned out to be not so much an education governor as a propaganda minister.

Gov. Tony Liar should be held accountable for his mendacity, as well as for his failed ideology.

More important, he should be held accountable for the thousands of families and children he is failing.

That is to say, for the successful future he is forbidding them to have.

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