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ACLU Calls for Department of Justice to Investigate Wisconsin’s Discriminatory School Voucher Program
MILWAUKEE, WI - June 7 - The American Civil Liberties Union today called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the systematic discrimination against and exclusion of students with disabilities in Wisconsin’s school voucher program. In a complaint filed today with the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights, the ACLU charges that Milwaukee Public Schools’ (MPS) voucher program fails to ensure that students with disabilities are given equal access to education.
“Wisconsin’s voucher schools are failing to provide children with disabilities their right to equal access to an education,” said Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Federal law prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The state of Wisconsin should not expand its voucher program if it cannot ensure equal, meaningful access for these students.”
Wisconsin sits at the forefront of an emerging national debate over whether efforts to expand school choice are adequately serving students with special needs. The privatization of public education is moving forward nationwide without regard to the private sector’s ability or willingness to educate students with disabilities, despite requirements that they do so. Indiana recently passed the most expansive school voucher program in the country, and the Wisconsin state legislature is likely to pass legislation this summer that will substantially expand its program. Advocates for people with disabilities have expressed concerns that such programs sanction the exclusion and segregation of students with disabilities. A Washington D.C. based organization advocating on behalf of people with disabilities also recently filed a complaint with the DOJ, charging that the district’s public charter schools discriminate against students with disabilities in their admission policies.
The Milwaukee Public School District is the largest public school district in the state but is receiving fewer and fewer state resources to educate its approximately 81,000 students – including approximately 16,000 students with disabilities – while the state diverts a significant portion of MPS funding to the voucher program that serves an almost exclusively non-disabled population. Families in Milwaukee have a number of government-funded educational options, the largest of which is the MPS system. Students may also attend charter schools and participate in the voucher program formally known as the “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.” To be eligible to enter the voucher program, the nation’s oldest, families are required to live in the city of Milwaukee and have a household income equal to 175 percent of the poverty line or less.
“Right now only about 1.6 percent of voucher students have disabilities, while 19.5 percent of Milwaukee Public School students do,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Increasing the size of the voucher program – as the state intends to do – will only lead to even more discrimination and more segregation of children with disabilities. We hope that DOJ will step in to stop that from occurring.”
Although Milwaukee’s voucher schools receive taxpayer dollars, the state asserts that they are private schools. Nearly 21,000 Milwaukee students attend these voucher schools with public funds. By treating these schools as private, Wisconsin has failed to hold these voucher schools accountable to the non-discrimination standards that public schools must uphold when serving students with disabilities. The complaint alleges that, as a result, the voucher schools discriminate against students with disabilities by refusing them admission or accommodation.
“Twenty years of offering vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee has demonstrated that children with disabilities are not welcome in Milwaukee’s private schools,” said Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Equally discriminatory is when these voucher schools occasionally accept children with disabilities, take their voucher funds and then expel them without recourse. They leave the family no other option than to return to Milwaukee Public Schools. In fact, our complaint includes one family whose children with disabilities were not admitted to a voucher school and another whose disabled child was kicked out of a voucher school and sent back to the public school system.”
The complaint can be found at: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/aclu-v-state-wisconsin-complaint-under-rehabilitation-act-and-americans-disabilities