Wisconsin disability-advocates had a lot to celebrate this weekend! I had the privilege of raising a glass on Friday with a couple dozen such advocates -- a non-partisan gathering of self-advocates and family members both -- to toast a remarkable series of four wins in the midst of Wisconsin's hectic rush to the finish line of this otherwise-disastrous legislative session.
Two or these victories are on issues I've diaried here multiple times.
Big Win #1: Defeat of the ALEC-Sourced school-voucher bill targeting students with special needs, the so-called "Special Needs Scholarship Program Act"!
(see Piratizing Special Education in Wisconsin: AB110 Plunder Revisited)
Big Win #2: Lifting the enrollment caps on Family Care and other long-term care programs for elders & people with disabilities
Big Win #3: Limiting the use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin's public schools
Big Win #4: Replacing the outdated and pejorative term "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" in Wisconsin statute
More details about each of these after the jump.
Big Win #1!
I've been sounding the alarm on ALEC's insidious "Special Needs Scholarship Program Act" since last May (Piratizing Special Education in Wisconsin: AB110). This attack on public schools uses students with special needs as the vehicle to make tax dollars flow to private schools. Educational privatization (or as I like to call it, "piratization") bills are a specialty of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization where Republican state legislators sit down with corporate representatives and write state-level corporate-friendly legislation. The state legislators then put their own name on copies of these bills and introduce them in states like Wisconsin when the GOP takes the majority. You can read much more about the coordinated ALEC assault on public education at the ALEC Exposed website, produced by the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison.
The core provision of AB110/SB486 would use vouchers to siphon public school tax dollars into private schools with minimal accountability, subsidizing even wealthy families to seek a private education for their son or daughter with special needs. The students left in the public schools, where special ed has been underfunded for years, would be left with even fewer resources. And the private schools wouldn't even be required to have certified special-educators on staff. Students who use the vouchers, meanwhile, would be walking away from considerable federal protections, as explained in an article from The Progressive:
What a lot of people don’t understand, says Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, is that disabled students who take advantage of special ed vouchers forfeit their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.Wisconsin, however, is getting wise to the ALEC scheme. Democratic Assembly Rep. Mark Pocan fought against AB110 with a devastating ALEC expose on the Assembly floor the other week; many other Democrats spoke passionately against the bill as well. Despite their best efforts, the special needs vouchers did pass the Assembly on Tuesday. However, the GOP couldn't muster enough votes in the Senate, and the Senate adjourned on Wednesday without taking up the bill.
That means they no longer have a right to a “free, appropriate public education” or the specific services that come along with that.
Not only that, they give up their chance to get their school districts to cover the costs of private education, if the local public schools can’t meet their needs.
Ding, dong, AB110 is dead!
The school-piratization lobby is powerful and well-funded. They will try again. We will have to be vigilant and well-prepared.
Meanwhile, there are three new Wisconsin laws for disability-advocates to celebrate!
Big Win #2: Lifting the enrollment caps on Family Care and other long-term care programs for elders & people with disabilities!
(see Wisconsin Action Alert: Bill to Lift Long-Term Care Caps Stalled in Committee)
This is a bi-partisan correction measure to fix one of the lesser-known outrages in the Walker budget. The 2011 budget put the brakes on years of progress for elders and people with disabilities, by freezing enrollment in community long-term care programs in Wisconsin. These programs, including the flagship Family Care program, provide people with the assistance they need to live in their communities rather than expensive, confining institutional care. The enrollment freeze caused the waiting lists to swell immediately; advocates have been working to remove the caps ever since the budget was announced.
The legislation to lift the caps came in the wake of a directive from the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services in December, ordering Wisconsin to start enrollment in these programs again. Though the lift-the-caps legislation had Republican authorship and Gov. Walker's support, there was a far-right wing in the Assembly that threw up roadblocks. Rep. Robin Vos (R), co-chair of the legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee and also Wisconsin's state ALEC chair, engineered an unwelcome amendment that makes it harder for counties that don't yet have Family Care to join the program. The amendment also forced a second vote in the state senate, bringing the bill's passage right down to the wire.
But pass it did, unanimously in the senate, opposed in the Assembly only by Rep. Vos and a very few others.
Now we'll be able to resume the crucial work of reducing the waiting lists again and getting people the help they need!
Big Win #3: Limiting and regulating the use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin's public schools
This win is the product of years of advocacy work, spurred by awful experiences of students who'd been subjected to dangerous, damaging physical restraints and being shut up for hours in isolated closets in their schools. Students with disabilities bear the majority of school seclusion and restraint incidents -- some of the folks I celebrated with this weekend could tell you stories that would make your hair curl. The new law sets out common-sense protections both for students and school staff, banning some restraint techniques outright, limiting others, and requiring that families be notified when seclusion and restraint is used.
FYI, a similar measure on the federal level, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, deserves our support.
Big Win #4: The People First bill, replacing the outdated and pejorative term "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" in Wisconsin statute
Anyone tempted to think this terminology change is a minor issue of political correctness should meet some of the people who were clinking glasses in celebration this weekend. Among our number were those for whom this new law was THE TOP legislative priority, as a matter of personal dignity and identity. The People First law answers the demand for a basic level of respect, a human-rights issue that the "R-word" undermines in a fundamental way. The respectful language now mandated in Wisconsin law is an immense step forward.
The People First act passed both chambers unanimously.
Governor Walker will be signing Big Wins #2-4 into law this week.
Truly a time for celebration!
Those of you who contacted legislators on these issues (in response to my previous diaries or otherwise), thank you and thank you and thank you again! Please consider joining me in communicating thanks to your legislators as well. If you need confirmation of how your legislator voted on any of these, message me and I'll be glad to let you know.