Justice Department Says State Voucher Programs May Not Discriminate Against Students With Disabilities

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
May 2, 2013 4:25 pm

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DOJ Finding Was Prompted by ACLU Complaint

May 2, 2013

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NEW YORK – In a letter released this week, the U.S. Department of Justice affirmed that Wisconsin must ensure that students with disabilities who seek to attend or are currently enrolled in private schools through the state’s taxpayer-funded voucher program “do not encounter discrimination on the basis of their disabilities.”

The DOJ letter was prompted by a 2011 complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“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,” DOJ officials wrote in the letter to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers.

In the letter, the DOJ firmly establishes that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to voucher programs, with potentially far-reaching impact across the country. Twenty states and the District of Columbia currently offer taxpayer-funded voucher programs or tax credits permitting students to use public funds for private school education.

“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.”

Wisconsin has the oldest voucher program in the country and the Milwaukee program serves approximately 21,000 students. Currently, parents of students with disabilities are not educated about their right to use the vouchers for private schools. The schools receiving vouchers are not monitored for compliance with the ADA, and students with disabilities are routinely suspended or expelled from the private schools for minor behavioral issues. Together, as the 2011 complaint from the ACLU and DRW alleges, this has the effect of discrimination, systematically excluding students with disabilities from participating in the voucher program and segregating them in public schools in disproportionate numbers.

“We have said for years that the state of Wisconsin cannot ignore civil rights laws – including the Americans with Disabilities Act – in setting up and running a private school voucher system. We’re glad to see that the Department of Justice agrees with us,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

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