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Voucher Schools Discriminate Against Students With Disabilities
Justice Department’s Order Could Doom Some Schools

Look for some voucher schools to close. That is because these schools discriminate against children with disabilities, and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) is ordering Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to enforce the law.

In its April 9 letter to State School Superintendent Evers, DOJ outlined violations within the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program (MPCP). Some voucher schools do not provide necessary services to special needs students, deny admissions, and if enrolled, force these students out of their programs. The Feds are ordering Evers to enforce federal laws.

Evers doesn’t disagree with the findings, but he isn’t sure what authority he has under state law to enforce federal directives. If past history is any indication, the main mechanism would be withholding state funds until these schools are in compliance.

Given the precarious finances of some schools, even a delay of state funds could push some schools over the edge of financial solvency. Schools with a good infrastructure, part of a system such as the Catholic schools, are likely to figure it out. Standalone, storefront schools have trouble just keeping the financial books, let alone complying with other federal regulations.

DOJ is requiring that DPI collect complaints and turn those complaints with the actions DPI has taken over to DOJ. If they feel that the state has not taken sufficient action, the Fed could take DPI, the schools themselves, or both to court.

If some schools close, does this mean a handful or dozens? Just how many schools are in trouble may depend upon the diligence of DPI and the number of complaints it receives. Few parents are likely to know they even have a right to file a complaint or slog through the process. They might just shrug their shoulders and transfer their children to another school.

Let’s not forget that the original complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Disabilities Rights Wisconsin (DRW).  These organizations are not likely to wash their hands of the affair simply because DOJ has issued this letter to Evers. Both have a reputation for aggressive follow up.

Perhaps the organization with access to the most information is Milwaukee Public Schools. It already conducts intake interviews with parents if they are transferring their children from another school to MPS. Look for the district to beef up its procedures with an eye towards filing complaints against some private schools.

DOJ states in its letter that “DPI must establish and publicize a procedure for individuals to submit complaints,” DOJ doesn’t state who those individuals are, and acceptable complainants may be more than just parents or guardians. Could not the “individuals” be officials from ACLU, DRW, or MPS?

Conservative, pro-voucher organizations have attacked the findings of the DOJ. They contend that religious schools actually have the right to discriminate against children with disabilities. Legally that might be true if these schools were totally privately funded. (Morally is a whole other question.)  But we are talking about public funds; take the funds, and accept the strings that come with it. They also know that some parents aren’t sending their children to religious schools for religious instruction but partly to get away from children with emotional disabilities that tend to disrupt the classroom environment.

They also challenge the letter to Evers because it paints the voucher movement with a broad brush. Privately they know that some questionable voucher schools are an albatross pulling down the entire voucher movement. If the worst voucher schools are forced to close, the voucher school leadership will shed no tears.

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