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May 3, 2013

In a letter released this week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) told Wisconsin that the state must ensure that students with disabilities who seek to attend or are currently enrolled in the state's voucher schools must "not encounter discrimination on the basis of their disabilities."

"The Department of Justice has affirmed that private schools that receive taxpayer dollars do not operate in a civil rights vacuum," said Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program. "This is important not only for students with disabilities in Wisconsin, but for all students across the country who have been discriminated against because of the effort by some states to privatize public education."

In the April 9 letter, the DOJ firmly establishes that the ADA applies to voucher programs, and because 20 states and the District of Columbia currently offer taxpayer-funded voucher programs permitting students to use public funds for private voucher schools, the letter has potentially far-reaching impact.

DOJ officials wrote that "The State cannot, by delegating the education function to private voucher schools, place students beyond the reach of the federal laws that require Wisconsin to eliminate disability discrimination in its administration of public programs," in its letter to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers.

"We have said for years that the state of Wisconsin cannot ignore civil rights laws --- including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) --- in setting up and running a private school voucher system. We're glad to see that the U.S. Department of Justice agrees with us," said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

The DOJ letter was prompted by a 2011 complaint from the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin that the Milwaukee voucher schools violate the ADA.

Wisconsin has the oldest school voucher program in the country, and the Milwaukee program serves approximately 21,000 students. However, while at least 20 percent of Milwaukee's public school students are children with disabilities, the voucher program serves very few disabled students. Families of students with disabilities are never informed of their right to use the school voucher program, no one monitors the voucher schools for ADA compliance, and students with disabilities --- even minor disabilities --- are routinely denied admission to and pushed out of private voucher schools. These actions systematically exclude students with disabilities from the voucher program and result in the Milwaukee Public Schools system educating almost all of Milwaukee's students with disabilities.

"Disability Rights Wisconsin has been hearing from parents about discrimination against students with disabilities in the state's school voucher system for many years," said Lisa Pugh, Public Policy Coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin. "It would clearly be an irresponsible use of tax dollars and a disservice to parents to even discuss expansion of the current voucher program or implement a new special needs voucher at this time. A special needs voucher that leaves it up to the school to decide whether or not to accept a student will not solve this egregious problem."

For more information about this issue, visit the ACLU's website. The ACLU of Wisconsin describes itself as defending "the civil liberties and civil rights of all Wisconsin residents in a nonpartisan manner," and Disability Rights Wisconsin is "the federally designated Protection and Advocacy System in the State, charged with protecting the legal and human rights of individuals with disabilities."

Related Stories:
Vouchers Fail, Yet Politicians Want More
Vouchers Fail to Impress, But Supporters Press On
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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