By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — There is a small charter school in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that parents, students and community members describe as nothing short of miraculous.
Lakeland Star in Minocqua has made a significant difference in the lives of the children on the autism spectrum it serves.
Gov. Tony Evers doesn’t care about any of that. “The education governor,” as Evers likes to bill himself, recently vetoed $750,000 in state funding marked for a school he’s never seen. The Democrat played politics, saying he objects to providing state grants to specific schools when the Republican-controlled state Legislature “has provided limited spending to Wisconsin’s public school system as a whole.”
Never mind that Wisconsin’s K-12 schools are getting record funding driven by massive amounts of federal COVID cash. The governor insists he won’t play favorites.
“Every kid in Wisconsin should be able to get a great education in a public school regardless of what district they live in, and state funding decisions should not pick winners and losers among our kids,” he wrote
But Evers is the king of picking winners and losers — as evidenced in particular by his education budget choices. He has favored his liberal base in Milwaukee, Madison and other urban school districts, attempting to reward his generous teachers union donors at every turn.
Gregg Walker, president of the Lakeland STAR Governance Board, said he’s not about to get into politics. He agrees that every student deserves a quality education. But why deny a school doing so much for students with autism and other sensory needs the ability to expand space and services?
“The governor did what he did and he’s done it twice,” Walker said, noting Evers has vetoed funding for Lakeland Star in both biennial budgets he’s signed. “I would just ask that the governor would come up here and look at the school… If he looked at what we were doing he would have a much different take, he would have more knowledge before he used his veto pen.”
A father’s quest
Walker isn’t just president of the board. His son, Sam, who was diagnosed with autism, is going into his senior year at Lakeland Star Academy, which serves students in grades 9-12. Its sister facility, Star School, educates 7th- and 8th-grade students.
Lakeland Star was founded on a father’s quest to help his son and other children with autism have the kind of educational opportunities not found in Wisconsin’s rural Northwoods. A few years ago Walker toured Lionsgate Academy, a Minnesota public charter school designed to address the unique learning needs of students living on the autism spectrum and other learning differences. He was blown away.
Walker, owner of the Lakeland Times newspaper, wanted to bring Lionsgate to Minocqua. So, he and some committed parents and community members began a fund-raising campaign. He also lobbied his lawmakers for help.
Then-state Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Minocqua Republican, and Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) saw what Walker saw in Lionsgate and pushed for $750,000 in state funding for Lakeland in the 2019-21 budget. The Joint Finance Committee trimmed the ask to $250,000.
Evers killed it.
Walker, his board and Minocqua residents pushed on. With the help of a successful community golf event and other fundraisers, Lakeland Star Academy opened in the fall of 2018 as a charter school in the Lakeland Union High School District.
Enrollment originally was capped at 15 students the first year, but the school ended up taking 20 students, Walker said. It was an immediate indicator of need. Enrollment has doubled. At present, the two schools’ serve 38 students. Lakeland officials say they could serve many more, as the waiting list continues to grow.
“This is a special school for special kids with special needs,” said Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), who championed the $750,000 budget measure for Lakeland Star in the recent budget battles.
Swearingen says he’s seen firsthand the difference the schools have had in the lives of kids and families. Students who were completely non-communicative are now speaking, engaged and on the road to independence.
“Four students last year got their drivers’ licenses. That never would have happened before,” Walker said. Three more are expecting to get their licenses this year.
Lakeland Star’s success derives from the caring and talented professionals who run the programs and the schools, board members say. The schools are directly connected to the area health care system and its Practical Assessment Exploration System (PAES) lab is credited with connecting students to careers and an independent future. PAES labs transform students into employees and teachers into employers. The lab assesses students’ competitive work potential and interest level, as they explore various jobs. They use real tools and develop proper work behaviors in fields as varies as construction/industrial and computer technology and business.
One student has become a star at Truck Country in Minocqua, Walker said. The parents say their son is “in heaven” working at the business, in a program custom-created for him.
Jessa Zimmerman was non-communicative when she began at Lakeland Star Academy. In her third year, the student testified at a Joint Finance Committee meeting in Rhinelander.
“If I was asked to speak to you about STAR last year I would not have been able to do it,” she testified. “I am now a more confident person because I am attending a school where people meet my needs. I have many sensory needs that are now being addressed because people at STAR noticed there was more to me than a learning disability. Coming to STAR was the best thing that ever happened for me.”
‘Punch in the gut’
Liberals blasted Swearingen’s earmark for the charter school, insisting it came from a place of privilege.
“Deep pockets, good connections, you get stuff. It’s the sad but unfortunate truth,” Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney and advocacy chair for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin, told PBS Wisconsin. “I’m not judging this particular school, but these types of schools are not the go-to answer for what parents of children with autism want,” he said. “But they’ve become necessary because of chronic underfunding.”
Swearingen stands by the funding, while saying he’d like the to do more for schools like Lakeland Star that are doing so much for their students. He said Evers’ veto was a “punch in the gut” to him and Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), who also has been a champion for Lakeland Star.
Swearingen said Evers’ rhetoric on playing favorites rings hallow.
“For a guy who claims to be ‘The Education Governor’ he is more like the teachers’ union governor,” he said. The Republican lawmaker noted it’s another example of the governor’s disconnection to the rest of the state. Evers rarely makes it out of Madison, and is mostly a stranger to the Northwoods, Swearingen said.
“I would challenge the governor to get out of his executive residence and come up to the Northwoods and tour the Lakeland Star Academy and see what he did to them,” the representative said. “I don’t know if it was vindictive or spiteful or what it is, but that $750,000 could have made a lot of people very happy.”