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Helping special education students

Change in law makes open enrollment easier

By State Sen. Luther Olsen


One of the ways parents in Wisconsin can find the school that is best for their children is through the public school open enrollment program. Under this program, students can attend a school outside their resident school district.

A parent might choose to send their child to a different district because of a particular program it offers or if the parents works in the non-resident district, for example. The public school open enrollment program is open to students with special needs, but there have been some roadblocks in the past that made it difficult for some special education students to take advantage of the opportunities provided through the program.
Although the legislature begins work on the state budget in the early spring of odd-numbered years (like 2015), there is a great deal of work that goes into crafting the budget before it gets to the legislature. In September of even-numbered years (like 2014), state agencies submit requests to the governor of what they would like included in the state budget.

Last September, when the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) submitted their budget request, they brought up some issues with the open enrollment program and barriers that prevent some students from accessing it. When agencies submit their budget requests, the governor looks at each one and decides which parts of the requests to include in his executive budget. While the governor did not include provisions changing the open enrollment program for special education students, the Joint Finance Committee considered the issues that DPI raised and approved changes to make it more accessible.

Until the passage of the biennial budget, the open enrollment program allowed resident districts to deny an open enrollment application if it would cause an undue financial burden on the district. Resident districts were required to pay a non-resident district tuition for the cost of educating students who receive special education services.

DPI explained that students with special education needs have been denied at a higher rate than other students because of the additional educational costs they incur. In the 2013-14 school year, 38.82 percent of students with disabilities were denied an open enrollment placement, compared to 29.1 percent of regular education applicants.

The state budget eliminated a provision in the law that allowed school districts to deny an open enrollment application based on undue financial burden. It also removed the requirement that non-resident school districts provide an estimate of costs to educate a special education student to the resident school districts and a requirement that the resident district pay tuition for special education students.

Instead, the budget set a specific transfer amount for special education students of $12,000, which is higher than the amount that is transferred when a regular education student attends a non-resident district school through the open enrollment program. By deleting the tuition provision, state categorical aid for special education students would follow those students to the non-resident district. These provisions will first apply in the 2016-17 school year.

As we look at all the different educational opportunities in the state, it is important to consider how these opportunities can be accessible for students with different needs. I supported the change the Joint Finance Committee made because I think it makes the open enrollment program work better for students and schools.

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