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Wisconsin Education Officials Ask: Do Vouchers Serve Special-Needs Students?

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The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is looking into whether private schools that receive taxpayer-supported voucher dollars serve students with disabilities. The department is requesting information from voucher school leaders about their special-needs students in conjunction with a 2011 complaint made to the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the Associated Press.

The request for information sent to schools last week has upset some Republican state lawmakers who say the Department of Public Instruction is biased against the voucher program. Sen. Paul Farrow sent a strongly worded letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers on Monday saying lawmakers should have been told about the request. 

"Instead, you have chosen to use the power of your agency to attempt to gather unspecific data that your agency can once again manipulate in an attempt to do damage to our choice programs," Farrow wrote in the letter.

A spokesman for the state education department told the Associated Press that responding to the request was voluntary.

The U.S. Department of Justice's 2011 investigation was initiated by a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union that some Milwaukee private schools participating in the state's voucher program were discriminating against students with disabilities.

Education Week Staff Writer Christina Samuels wrote about the issue:

The complaint said that 1.6 percent of the students using vouchers in Milwaukee were classified as having disabilities, compared with 20 percent of Milwaukee's public school students. The 22-year-old program is administered by the state and enrolls about 24,000 students who receive vouchers of approximately $6,400 a year. 

Last year, the Justice Department wrote in a letter that the state Department of Public Instruction must do more to insure that private schools receiving public funds through vouchers do not discriminate against special needs students. It mandated that state officials:

  • collect and share data on students with disabilities participating in the voucher program;
  • educate families with special-needs students on their rights to a school choice program;
  • and provide training to voucher schools about the Americans with Disabilties Act.

Whether vouchers and other school choice programs adequately serve students with disabilities is a long-standing debate that extends beyond Wisconsin, even though some state's programs specifically provide funding for special-needs students. Voucher programs are currently offered in 13 states as well as in the District of Columbia, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice which tracks this kind of information. The foundation estimates there are over 123,000 voucher recipients nationwide. 

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