Intellegere Foundation recently had an opportunity to sit down with Janice Miles to discuss special education. Janice is the parent of a child with special education needs. She is also president of Autism Society of Northeast Wisconsin, vice-president of Wisconsin Autism Providers Association, and owner/CEO of Centerpiece Autism Services.
To begin, we should establish what special education is and how it is implemented. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) offers the “Special Education in Plain Language – Handbook,” which describes special education as providing additional support for students with disabilities.  Janice expands on this by saying, “special education is an acknowledgement that a child cannot learn in the same way that a typical and healthy child can learn and modifications to the curriculum and/or environment are going to be necessary for the child to be successful.”
Special education is an acknowledgement that a child cannot learn in the same way that a typical and healthy child can learn and modifications to the curriculum and/or environment are going to be necessary for the child to be successful.
Special education is implemented by Individualized Education Plans (IEP). Wisconsin DPI has brought the IEP in-line with the state’s broader focus of graduating students “Career and College Ready” (CCR). According to the DPI’s overview of CCR-IEP, the process of developing the IEP involves bringing together a student’s network of parents, providers, and educators to figure out what changes are needed for the student to be successful. This team develops appropriate goals and aligns needed services.  During our conversation, Janice provided examples of modifications including: placing a student in a special classroom, adjusting curriculum to reflect the student’s current ability in various subjects such that a student may work at a higher grade-level in one subject while at a lower grade-level in others, as well as behavioral supports and/or additional breaks throughout the day. She continued by saying, “really the sky is the limit for what they are supposed to receive.”
The sky is the limit for what they are supposed to receive.
The objective and the goal of this effort is to help the child become an independent adult. According to Janice, “these (special education) are the differences for these children between being able to live on their own and maybe being able to have an income and a job or having to be in a group home for the rest of their life.” Assisted living is extremely expensive, averaging $4,300.00 a month in Wisconsin [3 & 3a] and is not covered by Medicare.  Limited funding from state and federal programs is available to offset these costs.  Janice sums up this point, “the impact over the span of the individual’s lifetime is pretty tremendous” and adds, “it’s very very worth it to put the work in early and get the results for the child (so that) they can get the best possible outcome.”
The impact over the span of the individual’s lifetime is pretty tremendous.
Wisconsin DPI has acknowledged an increasing prevalence of autism among the population of students in both public and private schools.  The data indicates that in the most recent 10 year period available, 2006-2016, the number of students with autism in the classroom has increased from 5,085 to 11,470.  This is not merely an increase in student population. Prevalence has also increased from 0.50% to 1.16% during the same period.  Janice echoes these statistics, “when speaking with teachers and special education directors I find that all are in agreement that there are far more students with autism in the classroom than there were ten years ago… and when you talk to the educators they are very quick to tell you, it is not all an increase in higher functioning children.” Janice goes on to say, “the number of children with significant behavioral challenges such as severe self-injury, aggression, and elopement (running from classrooms or buildings) are all on the increase.”
Between 2006 and 2016 number of students with Autism in the classroom has increased from 5,085 to 11,470 and prevalence has also increased from 0.50% to 1.16%.
According to several sources, Wisconsin’s current funding of special education is not adequate. At least fifteen school districts across the state have adopted resolutions calling for increases in state special education funding.  Special education funding has remained flat for over a decade.  In fact, on a per-student basis the rate has dropped from an inflation adjusted $3,489.18 in 2008 to $3,140.00 in 2018.  In this funding landscape, there are fewer options available for parents, teachers and special education professionals to ensure the needs of students are being met.
Special education funding has remained flat for over a decade.
Federal law, 34 CFR 300.116, requires that students with disabilities are placed in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) and further, “In selecting the LRE, consideration is given to any potential harmful effect on the child or on the quality of services that he or she needs.” [9 & 1] In practice, placing the child in a regular classroom and removing supports becomes a goal. This may be further incentivized by the high-demand for the limited special education funding. When asked about this possibility, Janice indicated, “cost is always at the forefront” she added, “it is part of the culture of most inclusive – least restrictive.” Placing students with disabilities into regular classrooms and reducing the amount of 1:1 support they receive reduces the expense of providing education for that child. Therefore, it certainly seems possible that schools may be willing to employ more aggressive plans, transitioning students to regular classrooms and fading supports more rapidly, in order to reduce costs.
Schools may be willing to employ more aggressive plans, transitioning students to regular classrooms and fading supports more rapidly, in order to reduce costs.
When asked what needs to be done, Janice indicates a strong support for expanding the variety of educational options, “the answer is that there isn’t one answer. You set up many opportunities in the community and you let the families choose what environment and support network is best for them.” There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to special education. Each child and family has unique needs and it is not clear what is going to work best. Janice adds, “What we do know is they don’t learn the same. They don’t interact with their environment the same and their experience in the school is way different than that of a typical child.” The schools need the resources; financial, staffing, and technical, to be able to provide an array of options. We can achieve the best possible outcomes, Janice says, “if we provide what truly is needed for each individual child instead of continuing on with the push of trying mainstream every single child.”
The answer is that there isn’t one answer. You set up many opportunities in the community and you let the families choose what environment and support network is best for them.
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This is a production of Intellegere Foundation’s ‘Wisconsin Education Project.’ The aim of the project is to advance public discourse and engagement on issues of education in the state. If you are uniquely involved with education anywhere in Wisconsin we would love to speak with you. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org