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Wisconsin Segregates Students with Disabilities; Race to Follow

Aziz Ahmad,
Racial Justice Program
Richard Muniz,
Reproductive Rights Fellow,
ACLU of Illinois
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June 14, 2011

Under Milwaukee’s 20-year-old school voucher program ? the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), parents have a “choice” between two publicly funded school systems. Parents can either send their children to the city public schools or apply a publicly funded voucher to attend private schools, which are often religious. In the last school year, Milwaukee parents enrolled more than 20,000 children in private school using vouchers.

For students with disabilities in Milwaukee, however, there is no choice. Although Milwaukee’s voucher schools receive a tremendous amount of public money, the state asserts that they are private schools. Federal anti-discrimination law applies to both public schools and federally funded private schools, but because there has been no oversight or monitoring to ensure that voucher schools don’t discriminate against students, discrimination happens. Students with disabilities are denied admission to, expelled from, or otherwise not accommodated by the voucher schools solely because of their disabilities.

The effect? Segregation. Nearly 1 in 5 students in Milwaukee Public Schools has a disability; yet, students with disabilities make up less than 2 percent of the students in the voucher schools. Effectively denied the same choice as students without disabilities, students with disabilities in Milwaukee are forced to remain in the city public schools.

Last Tuesday, the ACLU Racial Justice Program, along with the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and Disability Rights Wisconsin, filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the State of Wisconsin, its Department of Public Instruction, and two private schools, arguing that the Milwaukee voucher system violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against students with disabilities. The complaint was brought on behalf of two families who were denied a “choice” because of disability.

Voucher programs like MPCP purportedly offer low-income families a better alternative to the poor-performing public schools, but incidentally, students in middle- to upper-class public schools, on average, perform better than students in the voucher schools, as is the case in Milwaukee. The promise of equal educational opportunities, thus, for low-income families, and hence many families of color, is still elusive: both voucher schools and inner-city public schools still perform substantially poorer than public schools in middle and upper-class (white) neighborhoods. For low-income families and families of color, then, what meaningful choice is there between two inferior educational systems?

A proposed MPCP expansion, approved by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee two weeks ago, would nearly double the income eligibility cap to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Under the proposal, a family of four (a married couple with two children), for example, with an annual family household income of $74,050 would qualify for a voucher — a difference of almost $35,000 from the current limit of 175 percent; hence allowing middle-class families to participate in the program. So, the stated purpose of the MPCP — to provide low-income families with the opportunity to attend private schools — would be lost under the proposal. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan, on the other hand, would eliminate the income limit altogether and thus allow the outright public subsidization of private education for upper-class families.

In 20 years, Milwaukee’s voucher program has succeeded in segregating students with disabilities in underfunded and underperforming city public schools. Proposals to expand the program to other parts of the state, while eliminating income caps, threaten a different kind of segregation. At bottom, Wisconsin’s “choice” program is part of a larger privatization effort that threatens to resegregate students of color, denying them equal educational opportunities, contrary to the program’s purpose. What choice, then, does MPCP really offer?

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