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Wis. Voucher Program Must Comply With Disabilities Law, Justice Department Says

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A letter from the U.S. Department of Justice says that the state of Wisconsin must ensure that private schools receiving students using public funds through the nation's oldest voucher program are complying with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and not discriminating against students with special needs.

The letter came in response to complaints filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin in June 2011 after several families complained of discrimination based on disabilities in Milwaukee's voucher program.

Those organizations and individuals had argued that the voucher program in Milwaukee, which educates about 21,000 students in the city's private schools using public funds, was creating two separate education systems in the state by not allowing students with disabilities to be admitted to the voucher-funded private schools or by expelling students with disabilities from those schools without providing reasonable accommodations for them. While the percentage of students in the voucher program who had disabilities hovered around 1.6 percent, nearly 20 percent of the student body in the 81,000-student Milwaukee Public School system were classified as such in 2010-11.

In response, the U.S. Department of Justice, in the letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said the state department of public instruction "must do more to enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements that govern the treatment of students with disabilities who participate in the school choice program."

The letter requires that the department eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities in the school-choice programs in Milwaukee, Racine, and any other school voucher programs. It also mandates that state officials establish a procedure for logging and communicating disability-related discrimination in the school voucher program, and collect data and information about how students with disabilities are being served by schools participating in voucher programs. That information includes how many students with disabilities are being served in voucher schools, how many are denied admission, how many leave those schools, and the number of students with disabilities who are expelled or suspended.

The education department will also be required to educate families of students with disabilities about their rights in the school-choice program, monitor voucher-participating schools for signs of disability discrimination, and provide training about the Americans with Disabilities Act to schools participating in the voucher program.

"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, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin, in a statement.

Milwaukee's voucher program was established in 1990. Since then, 21 states and the District of Columbia have created private school choice programs through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, affecting nearly 1.1 million students in the U.S., according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which tracks such information.

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