Disabilities create hurdles to open enrollmentWith a sigh, Michelle Janz put a hand to her face and flipped through a folder of letters, memos and official forms. She shook her head over the mass of paperwork accumulated in eight months.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
With a sigh, Michelle Janz put a hand to her face and flipped through a folder of letters, memos and official forms. She shook her head over the mass of paperwork accumulated in eight months.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” she said. “We should have a choice like any other student.”
Janz, who lives in Superior, had spent the better part of a year applying for open enrollment, facing rejection and working through the appeals process. Her goal was to enroll her son, Travis, in another school district.
During the 2012-13 school year, Travis was a special education student at Superior High School. Like a typical 17-year-old, Janz said, Travis loves computers. He also enjoys skateboarding and spending time with his friends.
“Everybody knows Travis,” Janz said. “He loves school, and he loves being around kids.”
Travis has Down’s syndrome and speech and hearing deficits. He communicates with a combination of verbal cues and sign language, and has a one-on-one aid to assist him at school.
Travis has also coped with three autoimmune disorders since childhood: celiac disease, hypothyroidism and diabetes. He follows a strict gluten-free diet to manage celiac disease and requires insulin shots for his diabetes.
“We’ve got a pharmacy supply at our house,” Janz said. “Anywhere we go I make sure he’s got his gluten-free food and backup (insulin) in case he’s running low.
“It’s a way of life, and it’s OK.”
Travis had been enrolled in the Superior school district since elementary school, but last year Janz decided to make a change after her son was restrained at school for the second time in four years.
“We wanted to go to open enrollment because we thought they were very punitive,” Janz said. “After 14 years, I had had it last year.”
Travis was restrained first in 2009, Janz said. She applied for open enrollment to the Maple school district but was denied because of a lack of space in the special education program.
In 2012, Travis was restrained a second time, and Janz applied for open enrollment again.
She received another denial, but this time the refusal came from Superior, not Maple.
“We can’t leave,” Janz said. “It’s just crazy.”
For students in general education, open enrollment is usually a one-step process. They apply to a school district and are accepted or denied.
Special education students face two hurdles.
First, they must be accepted by the district they apply to enter through open enrollment. That district can refuse if space is unavailable in its special education program or if it cannot provide the services needed.
If the nonresident district approves the application, students must be cleared by their home district, which can refuse on financial grounds.
The arrangement is intended to protect school districts, but it leaves families like the Janzes with nowhere to turn.
“It’s leaving us with no options,” Janz said. “We should all have choices. When I pay for insurance, if I don’t like the doctor, I have a choice.”
State statute allows districts to deny an open enrollment request if the cost of providing special education services imposes an undue financial burden on the district.
Jack Amadio, business manager for the Superior school district, said the difference in cost for general education and special education students is substantial.
“With special education students, they don’t have to adhere to the (open enrollment funding) formula, so they can bill us directly for services,” Amadio said. “There is a significant difference in cost because of the services.”
For the 2012-13 school year, the Superior school district paid nearly $62,000 to cover services for special education students enrolled in other districts.
More than half of the money went to virtual schools. Superior paid about $21,328 to Wisconsin Virtual Academy and $10,780 to Medford Area Public Schools in 2012-13.
The single largest payment went to the Maple school district, which received $22,172 for the year.
Kathy Hinders, director of student services/special education for Superior, said special education students sometimes are denied requests for open enroll out of the district.
“But we have not denied all special education students,” she said.
Janna Stevens, superintendent of the Superior school district, said data shows 13 special education students applied for open enrollment to other districts in 2013-14, and eight were denied.
In general education, Hinders said, students are almost always approved for open enrollment out of the district.
According to data from the Department of Public Instruction, special education students are denied open enrollment at a higher rate than general education students.
During the 2012-13 school year, special education students saw their applications for open enrollment denied about 42 percent of the time. General education students were denied for open enrollment almost 32 percent of the time.
Special education students also face a greater chance of denial by their home district.
Home districts approved 99.45 percent of applications for general education students in 2012-13 compared to 90.64 percent for special education students.
Over the past three years, special education students have been denied open enrollment requests by their home districts 9.1 percent of the time.
When a home district refuses a special education applicant, undue financial burden is listed as the reason for the denial 93 percent of the time, according to data from DPI. Students not in the special education program cannot be denied for financial considerations.
“We should have that choice just like other non-disabled children, but there’s an automatic stamper: Financial burden,” Janz said.
For Janz, the experience she’s had with her son has been eye opening.
She successfully appealed the denial from the Superior school district, and that small victory has given her new resolve. Moving forward, she hopes to help other parents and to be an advocate for special education students’ rights.
“It just shouldn’t be this hard,” she said. “Where are the students’ rights?”