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Justice Dept. Warns Wisconsin Voucher Schools Against Discrimination

The U.S. Department of Justice said Wisconsin private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers must not discriminate against students with disabilities in a new guidance letter.

The Justice Department was prompted to investigate the situation in Wisconsin after a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union and other state groups that claimed that Milwaukee was essentially creating a system of segregated schools.

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. (Here's some more facts and figures on the Milwaukee program.)

Students with even minor disabilities were routinely denied admission and pushed out of voucher-accepting private schools, the Wisconsin advocacy groups said. Also, families of students with disabilities were not told of their right to use the program, and the schools themselves were not monitored for adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department letter, dated April 9 but released Thursday, says that the state must create a process for people to register complaints; monitor schools to make sure students are not being expelled or denied admission because of their disabilities; conduct outreach to parents about school choice options; and train new and existing voucher-accepting schools about their responsibilities under the ADA. These processes must be in place by the 2013-14 school year.

Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has proposed expanding the Wisconsin voucher program to students with disabilities statewide. He has also proposed expanding vouchers for all students to additional cities in the state.

"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," said Lisa Pugh, the public policy coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin, in a press release. "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."

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