The Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP) represents an important new option for families of students with disabilities in Wisconsin. The SNSP provides a substantially larger voucher for families of students with disabilities who do not feel their needs are being met in the traditional public school setting to attend a private school that better meets those needs.

During the previous legislative session, a number of constraints on the program were removed meaning that many more Wisconsin children will be able to participate in the future. For the 2018-19 school year, 84 schools have signed up to participate including 55 schools which will be participating in the program for the first time. With a growing program such as this, it is important to get an assessment ‘on the ground’ of how well it is meeting the needs of participating students.

To help answer that question, the law included a provision that the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau conduct a survey of participating parents. The results of that survey have now been released. The survey included a host of questions on a variety of topics, from satisfaction with the behavior of other students to satisfaction with academic progress. The survey also compares parental satisfaction with traditional public schools on the same questions, allowing for easy comparison across sectors. Overall, the results are very encouraging about the potential of an expanded SNSP.

Among the first insights offered by the survey are the reasons that parents have for applying to the SNSP. Parents were given a list of potential reasons, and allowed to select more than one. The most widely chosen reason for applying to SNSP—chosen by 49.4 percent of respondents—was the idea that SNSP schools could offer additional supports and services to address the needs of their children. Beyond just students with special needs, the idea that a family should be able to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child is central to the philosophy of school choice proponents. It is perhaps reassuring that this is the most popular reason families in this survey have chosen for applying to the program.

Parent satisfaction with SNSP schools greatly exceeds that for traditional public schools on every category of the survey.  Among the highlights, 86.8 percent of parents report being satisfied with the academic progress of their students in the SNSP school, while only 38.3 percent said the same thing about their public school.  In another key area of particular interest for families with special needs students, 96.8 percent of parents said that they were satisfied with the behavior of other students toward their child in the SNSP school compared with only 54.4 percent saying the same about public schools. Parents also reported higher satisfaction with the level of individual attention their child received, with the management of the behaviors of their children, and with the supports and services offered by the school.

Education reformers often say that we trust parents over bureaucrats to decide what is best for their child. These survey results are not meant to make the claim that public schools are incapable of serving the needs of disabled students—indeed, in many instances they no doubt do a great job. But for those parents who believe that something is missing, they appear to be finding what they need in private school alternatives. It is incumbent on policymakers to protect programs like the SNSP, as well as school choice more broadly, so that all Wisconsin children have access to an educational environment where they can excel. 

Will Flanders Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.