Wisconsin Fails to Protect the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

As I reported last May,

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.

Since I am no longer at Disability Rights Wisconsin, I am not directly involved in that complaint.  However, my sources recently provided me with DPI’s stunning rebuke to DOJ in a letter dated November 25, 2013.  This letter is stunning for the length of time it took DPI to reply (over 7 months) demonstrating DPI’s utter indifference to the plight of children with disabilities in Wisconsin’s voucher (Choice) school program. It further disappoints due to DPI’s failure to accept responsibility to address the very real discrimination these students experience in this program.  As this letter is not available on-line, you can e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick if you want a copy.

First, DPI takes the position that it does not discriminate against children with disabilities in the administration of the voucher school program.  This, of course, misses the entire point of the complaint, which never accused DPI of such discrimination.  The complaint alleges massive discrimination by the voucher schools in keeping children with disabilities out of their schools, and further, that as administrator of the program, DPI must prevent and remedy such discrimination.

Next, while DPI has agreed (in an unspecified timeline) to,

establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to submit complaints to the DPI regarding disability-related discrimination in the Choice program,

it goes on to express concern that it has no authority to do anything about many of those complaints, by stating that it can only withhold voucher funds regarding discrimination by voucher schools in the admission of students with disabilities.  While this is some progress, it does not address the very real failure of voucher schools to accommodate the educational needs of children with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In response to DOJ’s request that DPI gather disability related information from voucher schools, it then goes on to complain that it,

lacks statutory authority to force Choice to schools submit the information required for items requested.

What is so utterly disappointing about this continual denial of responsibility is that:

  1. DPI has done nothing to seek the authority it alleges it needs; and
  2. DOJ has made it clear that DPI’s obligation is under federal law (the ADA), so the lack of a state statute providing similar authority is irrelevant.

Can you imagine if DPI took the position that it had no authority to respond to discrimination against racial, ethnic or religious groups by voucher schools?  The public outcry would be tremendous, and so it should be in this instance as well.

Fortunately, DPI has agreed to conduct public outreach about the school choice program to students with disabilities, including the rights of students with disabilities in those programs. The problem, of course, is that if DPI will not enforce the rights of those students, there will be a serious credibility gap in that outreach.

Remarkably, DPI even refuses to provide ADA training to voucher schools, stating that,

DPI does not provide ADA training for any public schools in Wisconsin.

Instead, it is “willing” to have the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) conduct that training.  

As one of the initial filers of this complaint, I certainly hope that DOJ will not simply accept DPI’s excuse that it has no authority under the ADA.  Further DPI should use this as an opportunity to push for more authority to hold voucher schools accountable for their long-standing discrimination against children with disabilities.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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3 thoughts on “Wisconsin Fails to Protect the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

  1. Thank you Jeff for that article you posted. I am still filled with rage and sadness along with not much hope for things to improve for my child with special needs. we struggle still on a daily basis to address things that because of the abuse that has happened affected him horribly. I truly feel and I know it is what it is but feel that if you were the one who still handled the case, it would have been a different outcome.

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