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DPI Must Track Discrimination against Special Needs Students in Voucher Schools

Ann-Elise Henzl

The U.S. Department of Justice is warning Wisconsin that its school choice or voucher program cannot discriminate against students with disabilities.

The letter arrives, as the Legislature considers Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. It calls for the creation of special needs vouchers. They would give private schools about $13,000 in public funding for each student with special needs enrolled.

Critics hope Thursday’s announcement derails the proposal. Lennise Vickers’ daughter has a disability that limits her speech. Vickers enrolled her at a voucher school, amid promises it would meet the girl’s needs.

“I was lured by the private schools, they have these back to school specials -- backpacks, they help you out with school uniforms -- and that was attractive to me, and it seemed alright in the beginning.”

However, Vickers says when she visited the school, she found her daughter sitting alone, left out of classroom activities. According to the mom, school staff told her they did not have a special ed teacher, and no one could figure out how to communicate with her daughter. Vickers removed her from the school, and now cautions others with special needs children to be wary of private schools.

“If they receive public money for these kids, then they should be under the same rule of thumb as MPS. You’re getting the money, so you should be able to provide special ed services, any kind of speech therapy, counseling – whatever they need.”

We do not think that these schools are equipped to serve students with disabilities. --Lisa Pugh, Disability Rights Wisconsin

Vickers appeared at a news conference Thursday. The state ACLU and the group Disability Rights Wisconsin organized the event, after learning that the U.S. Department of Justice recently sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The letter reportedly tells the DPI it must monitor voucher schools for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and not allow them to discriminate, by rejecting students because of a disability. Lisa Pugh of Disability Rights Wisconsin says the notice shores up her group’s concerns about the governor’s special needs voucher proposal.

“We do not think that these schools are equipped to serve students with disabilities and we very much request that the special needs voucher proposal be pulled from the state budget in light of some of the very serious allegations that are being confirmed here in this Department of Justice letter.”

The Department of Justice wrote the letter in response to a complaint that Disability Rights Wisconsin and the ACLU lodged. The DPI acknowledges receiving and reviewing the letter. A spokesman says the agency also is examining its authority under state law, given the department’s restricted oversight of private schools.

Meanwhile, parents such as Katie Griffin continue advocating for special needs vouchers. Griffin’s teenage son has Asperger’s. When he was younger, she pulled him out of the public system because he was failing. He did much better being homeschooled, where he could work at his own pace. Griffin insists some private schools could be the best place for certain children with disabilities, and more of those schools could crop up, if they had more resources.

“There aren’t a lot of specialty schools out there, actually. I’m hoping to see if parents finally have some monies available, some programs could be developed.”

Griffin says in the Milwaukee area there are several small, respected private schools known for teaching children on the autism spectrum, but she says they’re too expensive for many families.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.