The dog treat business that Gracie Jagler helps run is described here. It grew from a concern on the part of her parents, state Rep. John Jagler and his wife Heidi Jagler, about the lack of opportunities for children with a range of disabilities.  

Gracie’s dad is a member of the Wisconsin Assembly where he has walked the walk as well as talked the talk when it comes to support for children with special education needs.  

With former state Senator Leah Vukmir, in 2015 Rep. Jagler wrote and sponsored legislation to create the state’s Special Needs Scholarship Program. It supports parents of qualifying students who attend private schools that meet state guidelines. While Gracie was too old to participate, more than 1,400 other youngsters are benefiting this year. The program’s provisions are detailed on pages 21-25 of this Legislative Fiscal Bureau Informational Report 28.

The backstory to the Jagler-Vukmir initiative is a discouraging reminder of how vested interests circle the wagons against parents and students.  

A full three decades into Wisconsin’s school choice era, the same cast is arrayed against the idea that parents should have a major role in choosing the school their children attend. Establishment opposition is a given to any plan that gives parents primary control.  

Making things even worse for special education students were obstacles raised within the public school network to parents with special needs students. Jagler described to me “a shocking denial rate” for parents seeking an alternative public school under the state’s open enrollment program. 

He explained: 

Parents who felt their kid’s needs weren’t being met were trapped. They were either being blocked by schools who didn’t want them — or were blocked from leaving by their existing district who wanted to capture the funds. Those that fought hard to get out lost precious time and school years. Most parents already stressed with the life of a special needs parent, gave up. 

Opposition surfaced early.  It gave new meaning to the phrase knee-jerk.  Jagler recalled:

Leah and I had dozens of protestors for our news conference [announcing the bill].  They were protesting something they hadn’t even seen. Leah and I were the only ones who knew what was in it. Most disappointing….All of the disability groups were against it. 

Here’s the sorrowful rogue’s gallery that registered in opposition to the bill:  Association of Wisconsin School Administrators; League of Women Voters of Wisconsin; Madison Metropolitan School District; Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators; Wisconsin Association of School Boards; Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials; Wisconsin Association of School Personnel Administrators; Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services; Wisconsin Education Association Council; Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance; and Wisconsin School Social Workers Association.  

After a predictable 4-3 party line committee vote to support the bill, with Democrats united in opposition, Jagler and Vukmir got the plan included in the biennial budget bill. Per Jagler: “We fought hard. We won. In the first year, over 200 kids took part in the program [a number that has grown seven-fold]. In my office is a poster signed by all of them. It’s the best thing in my office and a constant reminder to keep fighting.” 

Eight-year old Jack Hughes and his family are among those thankful to Jagler, Vukmir, and other legislative Republicans. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jack and his mom Sarah described the impact of the special needs program in a video with former Vice President Mike Pence.  

George and Susan Mitchell were prominent leaders in the movement for school choice in Wisconsin.