A proposed charter school in the Lakeland area primarily for special-needs students, and with an autism specific program, took a giant step forward this week with the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee's approval of a state education budget.
Specifically, the provision would allow a charter school established under contract with a union high school district to give preference in enrollment to pupils who were enrolled during the previous year in a school operating under a cooperative agreement with the charter school established under contract with the union high school district, in other words, students from Lakeland area elementary schools.
Under current law, according to the JFC omnibus motion, if the capacity of a charter school is insufficient to accept all pupils who apply, the charter school must select students at random, though it must give preference to those who were enrolled in the school in the previous year and to siblings of those enrolled in the school.
Charter schools can also give preference to children of founders, governing board members, and full-time employees so long as the total number of such children given preference does not exceed 10 percent of total enrollment.
Practically, said Jim Ellis, the district administrator for Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk School, the provision will allow for a 7-12 charter school for area students.
"Yesterday the Joint Finance Committee passed a motion to allow union high schools to give charter school preference to students who were enrolled the previous year in a cooperative agreement (Lakeland area elementary school districts)," Ellis said. "This change in school law is a big foundational piece for the Lakeland area schools to open our 7-12 alternative school in the fall of 2018."
Lakeland Union High School district administrator Jim Bouché said the provision was practical and sensible.
"It just makes good sense for the continuation of education for students who are in the charter school," Bouché said.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany, who sits on JFC and helped to pass the provision, said it gave the Lakeland area new education options.
"The Lakeland school district will now have the opportunity to offer a special needs program unique to northern Wisconsin," Tiffany said. "Thanks to Rep (Rob) Swearingen for his efforts in the Assembly to bring the initiative to fruition."
Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker, the parent of a child with autism who has been instrumental in organizing efforts for the new school, said he was grateful the provision passed.
"It was many long hours and trips to Madison and in the end it actually made it," Walker said. "We have a chance to create a terrific school that could really help the surrounding communities, students, and families. The support for the school has been overwhelming, and it would not have passed Joint Finance without that support."
Walker and area educators say the alternative school is designed to give parents of special needs children and students with autism another educational option. While some students on the spectrum can cope in a general education environment, they say, many cannot.
Because children with autism process information differently than both neurotypical students and other special-needs students, autism experts say many need an autism-specific educational environment that emphasizes individual attention, that allows students to make their own assignment choices within reason and specific boundaries, that integrates basic independent living skills into each class goal, that minimizes visual overload in the class and school environment, and allows students to learn at their own pace.
A heavy emphasis is on community integration, allowing students to develop the social, practical, and functional skills they need to live an independent life.
Similar schools, such as Lionsgate Academy in Minnesota, have flourished over the past decade, and their number is growing, though Wisconsin has lagged behind other states in their development.
The omnibus motion passed by the JFC included other changes pertinent to charter schools and special needs students.
One provision will allow independent charter schools statewide. Specifically, the Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will now have the ability to authorize independent charter schools throughout the state.
The committee also passed several other measures that could ultimately benefit a new special-needs charter school.
One would create special education transition readiness grants. Under the program, according to the omnibus motion, the Department of Public Instruction would be required to award grants of not less than $25,000 and not more than $100,000 to school districts and independent charter schools to fund special education workforce transition support services, including pupil transportation, professional development of school personnel, and employing adequate personnel.
The JFC also voted to provide $739,000 in general revenues in 2017-18 and $853,800 in 2018-19 in the appropriation for high-cost special education aid. Under the program, the motion states, school districts could qualify for reimbursement for 90 percent of eligible costs above $30,000, rather than 70 percent under current law.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.
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