Disability Rights Wisconsin, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division today, charging that the nation’s most extensive school voucher program discriminates against students with disabilities.
The complaint aims to block recent legislation that aims to expand the Milwaukee’s Parental School Choice Program, which provides vouchers for about 20 percent of the city’s students to attend private schools, until the Department of Justice investigates the system to ensure students with disabilities are provided equal access to its services.
In the 2010-11 school year, just 1.6 percent of the approximately 20,000 students participating in the voucher program contained disabilities. In the Milwaukee Public School District, about 19.5 percent of students have disabilities.
“The practical and actual effect of the voucher school program is to create a dual system of education in Milwaukee, concentrating large numbers, and increasing proportions, of students with disabilities in (the Milwaukee Public School District), while giving non-disabled students the option of choosing either a private voucher school or staying in a public school, leading to the increasing segregation of children with disabilities in (the Milwaukee Public School District),” according to the complaint.
The advocacy groups argue that the private schools involved in the program are failing to provide reasonable accommodations to enroll students with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint, filed on behalf of two families whose children were either not accepted or expelled from the voucher program, cites a case where a school demanded that a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder be given certain medications that were not proscribed by his doctor.
The complaint also argues that the voucher program has changed and expanded in the past 20 years to the extent that it is private “in name only.” Therefore, the advocacy groups argue, the private schools participating in the voucher program should now be treated as public institutions and be required to accommodate certain students through special education programs, as required in public schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
About 72 percent of Milwaukee’s private school students are enrolled through the voucher program.
Recent legislation, promoted by Gov. Scott Walker and passed by the legislature’s joint joint Finance Committee, would eliminate the program’s enrollment cap and expand it to all of Milwaukee County. All students coming from household incomes of 300 percent or below the poverty line would also become eligible, as opposed to the previous cap of 175 percent.
Disability Rights Wisconsin is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.