The challenges which disenfranchised people face are as old as mankind. Fortunately, the courage to defend their civil rights also goes back millennia. As the famous Rabbi Hillel said,
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a compelling sermon invoking the “if not now, when?” question at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just 6 months before his assassination.
King specifically referenced the system of justice in his famous and compelling, Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he stated:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…”
It was in that spirit that I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program and orders DPI to undertake the following actions:
- Establish and publicize a complaint process for parents of children with disabilities who believe their children have been discriminated against in the Milwaukee voucher program.
- Collect data to determine the extent to which children with disabilities are being served by voucher schools.
- Conduct outreach to parents of children with disabilities to inform them of their rights related to attending voucher schools
- Monitor and oversee voucher schools to ensure that they do not discriminate against children with disabilities.
- Provide ADA training to voucher schools; and
- Provide written guidance to voucher schools on ADA compliance.
Sadly, to date, well over a month after the DOJ issued its directives, DPI has done absolutely nothing to comply with these directives. In fact, rather than decry disability discrimination by voucher schools, and pledge to eliminate it, DPI has repeatedly stated that it is reviewing the directives which are now more than a month old, and wrongly believes it needs more legal authority to enforce them.
DPI’s response demonstrates that it simply cannot be counted on to defend the civil rights of children with disabilities. It is a mystery why DPI has failed in its legal obligation to enforce the ADA ever since that law went into effect over 20 years ago, while children with disabilities suffer rampant discrimination at the hands of voucher schools. But even more shocking is DPI’s reticence to follow DOJ’s directives.
In my nearly 2 decades of advocating to protect the civil rights of children with disabilities in school, my observation has always been that DPI considers schools as its clients or customers. This DOJ directive gives DPI the opportunity to change that paradigm and understand that its true mission should be consider Wisconsin’s students as its customers.
As Rabbi Hillel and Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear, there is no higher calling than defending civil rights. Now is the time for DPI to take on that mantle and defend the civil rights of children with disabilities.