In a letter released last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) told Wisconsin that the state must ensure students with disabilities attending or seeking to attend taxpayer funded voucher schools "do not encounter discrimination on the basis of their disabilities."
Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the state is obligated to ensure that students with disabilities seeking to attend voucher schools through the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program (MPCP) do not encounter discrimination on the basis of their disability status. For years, my colleagues and I have heard story after story from parents, neighbors, and advocacy groups illustrating this federal law is being widely ignored by Milwaukee's voucher schools. These experiences detail students with disabilities being deterred from attending an MPCP school, denied admission to a voucher school when they do apply, and expelled or forced to leave a voucher school as a result of the school choosing not to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. In fact, while at least 19% of students in Milwaukee Public Schools are considered to have special needs, the same can only be said for about 2% of students participating in the MPCP program.
In the aforementioned letter, it seems that the federal government is also under the impression that students with disabilities are not being treated equally by MPCP schools receiving voucher funds. Therefore, they have given the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) the ability to better track voucher schools to ensure they are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Such efforts were nearly impossible in the past as MPCP schools are exempt from the accountability and transparency measures required at our neighborhood public schools.
In order for DPI to comply with the federal government's aim to ensure the civil rights of students with disabilities are not violated in the MPCP program, and all other communities with such a program, they will implement the following reforms during the 2013-2014 school year and have their progress reviewed by the federal government:
- State's ADA Title II Obligation: Eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities, or students whose parents or guardians have disabilities, in its administration of voucher programs. The private or religious status of a voucher schools does not absolve them from discrimination.
- Complaints: Establish and publicize a procedure for individuals to submit complaints to DPI alleging disability-related discrimination in voucher programs. Complaints and responses will then be independently review by the federal government.
- Additional Data Collection and Reporting: Collect data on how and to what extent students with disabilities are being served by voucher schools. Data should by taken of voucher schools during the 2013-2014 school year and include the number of students with disabilities enrolled listed by grade and disability type, denied admission, departed during the school year to re-enroll in public school, and suspended or expelled. Once the data is collected, it will then be submitted to the federal government.
- Public Outreach to Students with Disabilities: Conduct outreach to educate the families of students with disabilities about the voucher program and provide specific, accurate information about the rights of students with disabilities. Their efforts will be monitored by the federal government.
- Monitoring and Oversight: Ensure voucher schools do not discourage a student with a disability from applying for admission or improperly reject a student with a disability who applies to a voucher school. Require that a school that expels or forces a student with a disability to leave has a reason that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. DPI will be responsible for reviewing and investigating potentially unlawful cases of discrimination and will document actions taken by the agency to remedy the law violation.
- ADA Training for Voucher Schools: Provide training on the Americans with Disabilities Act to new and existing voucher schools. Training materials and attendance sheets will then be sent to the federal government for review.
- Guidance: Develop program guidance in consultation with the federal government to assist and educate voucher schools about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by 2014.
Discrimination Not Only Problem with Vouchers
In Milwaukee, public school students fared 7.8 percentage points better in math during the 2011-2012 school year and 6.5 percentage points better in the 2012-13 school year as compared to MPCP students. MPS students also did better with reading proficiency, scoring 4.2 percentage points better in 2011-12 and 3.4 percentage points better in 2012-13.
Milwaukee Public School were not alone in their compared success to voucher school students. Students in the Racine Unified School District also did better in math and reading as compared to PPSCP voucher students. During the 2011-12 school year, public school students tested 0.9 percentage points higher in math and 8.1 percentage points higher in reading versus their voucher student counterparts. The same was true in the 2012-13 school year, where public school students scored 3.7 and 2.1 percentage points higher than voucher students in math and reading respectively.
Click here to view the results referenced in full.
The results of this recent report continue the previous trend that this unaccountable experiment on our children has failed. Scoring lower in math and reading than their public counterparts, voucher schools in Wisconsin have done a disservice to parents and future Wisconsin workers. After 20 years of report after report showing underperformance, the logical reaction would be to institute accountability measures for private schools receiving taxpayer funded vouchers, not expand them without reforms. As property taxes continue to rise while reading and math scores remain low, Wisconsin's middle-class families are the unlucky backers of a losing gamble with the education of our children.
Make Your Voice Heard
Despite recent failures, the Republican budget allows for no new spending--$0 dollars--for our traditional public schools but increases spending for voucher schools by up to $1,414 per pupil. It is time for all of us to do something about this misguided, nonsensical education budget. Let the governor and Republican Legislature know that you oppose their misplaced education priorities. Tell them to support public education and stop spending public dollars on unaccountable private voucher schools by signing this petition being circulated on SignOn.org. The petition states the following:
In 2011, Governor Walker and the Republican Legislature passed a budget that contained the largest cuts to public education in Wisconsin history--$1.6 billion gone from our kids' schools. Class sizes went up drastically. Quality after-school programs were eliminated. Good teachers were laid off.
This year, the governor's proposed budget freezes public school spending, while increasing funding for unaccountable and unproven private voucher schools. Tell Governor Walker and the state Republicans to stand up for our kids and not special interests that want to profit on the backs of our future generations.
Petition signatures will then be shared with your state representative, state senator, and the governor. Additionally, once a neighbor has signed on to the petition, they will then have the option to send information about the petition to others by sharing it on Facebook, tweeting about it on Twitter, or emailing it to friends and family.
Join 3,201 of your fellow Wisconsinites by clicking here to sign the petition.