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