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Discrimination Claims Against Milwaukee Students With Disabilities Being Investigated


Wisconsin’s voucher schools have until June 30 to voluntarily provide data about students with disabilities to the state.The Department of Public Instruction has requested the information. Leaders say they and federal officials want to determine whether private schools receiving tax dollars are meeting those students’ needs. Advocates of the voucher program insist DPI has no business seeking the information.

Three years ago, the group Disability Rights Wisconsin requested an investigation. It wants to know whether Wisconsin voucher schools discriminate against students with disabilities. Lisa Pugh is the group’s director of public policy. It asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate after accusations surfaced that some voucher schools were not equipped.

“The complaint alleges students were being told verbally, perhaps, that they were not going to be admitted or there are allegations in the complaint of parents who were told that their children needed to take medication before being admitted or parents who are being asked to participate in a school and monitor their children in a way that indicated there wasn’t support,” Pugh says. 

The Justice Department asked Wisconsin’s DPI to collect information on how voucher schools serve students with disabilities. So DPI created an online form for those schools to fill out, if they agree, and without using the child’s name. The survey asks how many students with special needs the school admitted or denied for the 2013-14 school year, whether any enrolled and then left, and if any left, were they suspended.
James Bender, executive director of the group School Choice Wisconsin, says the request is inappropriate.

“This puts the private schools at risk because they’re not allowed to release that data, especially health related data because it’s so undefined, DPI has put no protection on the parameters of privacy and it doesn’t allow for any sort of discussion,” Bender says.

Bender accuses the Justice Department of being on a witch- hunt, because the Obama Administration opposes school choice or voucher programs.

“When DPI responded to the initial Department of Justice letter, DPI stated in the history of the program they do not have a single due process complaint on discrimination with regards to any student with special needs,” Bender says.

Federal law requires public schools to evaluate students for special services they may need and develop a plan. Bender says that requirement does not apply to private schools.

“The private schools are not under contract with the government, they are merely providing a service but they’re not under contract so that portion of the law doesn’t apply,” Bender says.

According to Bender, the responsibility and funding to develop a plan for students with disabilities falls to public schools. The DPI’s Lisa Pugh hopes voucher schools realize the extent of additional support some children may need.

“A private school should be prepared and equipped to serve students with disabilities and to figure out the way in order to do that appropriately, and certainly not to make promises of support to parents if they aren’t able to provide those,” Pugh says.

The DPI will learn in about a week, how many voucher schools voluntarily share information about students with special needs. The U.S. Justice Department also wants Wisconsin to establish and publicize a procedure for reporting alleged discrimination.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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