By Karyn Rotker, Courtney Bowie and Monica Murphy
May 8, 2013 MJS
T. was a kindergartner with a medical disorder that caused toilet difficulties. Despite her mother’s pleas, her teacher wouldn’t allow her to use the bathroom as needed – and humiliated her by discussing her problems publicly.
A. was a 9-year-old who sometimes wouldn’t speak. Her teacher left her sitting by herself in a corner of the classroom.
S. was a 4-year-old receiving speech and language services. When his mother met with administrators to enroll him in school, they tried to talk her out of it.
K. was an 8-year-old with attention deficition hyperactivity disorder. A school refused to admit him unless he was put on medication.
B. was an eighth-grader with mental health issues. Her behavior was improving, but she was expelled from school for having a verbal dispute with another student.
What do these children have in common? They all have disabilities, they all tried to participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and they all were denied admission, not served or pushed back into public schools by private voucher schools. These children have become part of a dual education system that segregates the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities in public schools, while providing them with fewer and fewer resources.
Pro-voucher forces claim that private schools serve many children with disabilities, but they have no serious data to prove it. The schools told the state Department of Public Instruction that only 1.6% of their children were students with disabilities for testing purposes. A study they use to argue that 14% of voucher students have disabilities only says that 14.6% of children who attended both Milwaukee Public Schools and voucher schools were in special education in MPS.
And the vast majority of the children who attended MPS and voucher schools went from the voucher schools back to MPS. During the first semester of this school year, 306 children moved from voucher schools back to MPS – 142 of them children with disabilities.
In 2011, ACLU, ACLU of Wisconsin and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint alleging that because Wisconsin administers this program with public dollars, it must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed.
In an April 9 letter, DOJ told DPI that it must ensure that students with disabilities “do not encounter discrimination (in the voucher program) on the basis of their disabilities.” The state can’t escape the legal requirement to eliminate disability discrimination in its public programs by delegating education to private schools, DOJ explained.
This means that voucher schools cannot discourage children with disabilities from applying or deny them admission just because they are disabled. And “DPI must further ensure that voucher schools, absent a valid ADA defense, do not expel/exit a student with a disability unless the school has first determined, on a case-by-case basis, that there are no reasonable modifications to school policies, practices or procedures that could enhance the school’s capacity to serve that student.”
Pro-voucher forces argue that the solution is to create a separate special needs voucher program, which will make things worse because no private school will have to accept those vouchers. Thus, private schools will continue to pick and choose which children with disabilities they want to serve. At the same time, children will lose their federally protected special education rights. And some special needs voucher supporters want to create segregated schools for children with disabilities, further undermining efforts to integrate these children into schools and communities.
It is time to suspend any effort to expand vouchers – unless and until the state creates a system that stops discriminating against children with disabilities.
Karyn Rotker is a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Courtney Bowie is a senior staff attorney for the ACLU Racial Justice Project. Monica Murphy is a managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin.