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Discrimination charge reignites passions over Wisconsin school voucher program


School Choice Wisconsin fired back against charges the Milwaukee school voucher program discriminates against students with disabilities as alleged in a federal complaint filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin.

In a press release, School Choice Wisconsin argued ACLU and DRW misappropriated public information about student disability enrollment:

• Understates dramatically the number of special needs students served by private schools in the [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program].

• Fails to note the disparity in taxpayer support for MPCP pupils and pupils in private schools.

• Fails to note that Disability Rights Wisconsin opposed a bill to provide more educational opportunities and more taxpayer support for students with disabilities.

Though the complaint by the two legal advocacy groups, which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, stated only 1.6 percent of the voucher program students have special needs, SCW says those numbers are a “non-representative percentage of the 10,649 MPCP pupils who indicated they had disabilities when taking the WKCE in 2010.” (WKCE is Wisconsin’s state-sanctioned standardized test.)

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin and one of the signees of the federal complaint says the percentage his office came up with is accurate.

His confidence stems from a 2004 act of Congress that stipulated a public school system must share a percentage of its federal student disability services dollars with competing private schools once a certain number of students within the district attend those private schools. Since parents at those private institutions request funds directly through the local school district, an exact figure of the number of private school students with disabilities is available.

In this case, Milwaukee Public Schools indicated 1.6 percent of the roughly 21,000 pupils enrolled through MPCP were allotted dollars for disabilities. “It’s a hard number,” Spitzer-Resnick says, “there’s no disputing it.”

Also catching the eye of Disability Rights Wisconsin was the assertion made by SCW that there are 10,649 voucher school students with disabilities. “I would be shocked that half of their students have disabilities,” Spitzer-Resnick said.

Complicating matters is a footnote placed in the SCW press release that directs to a March state document (PDF) revealing students of traditional public schools in the city fared better on a state test than pupils of MPCP. Published by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, it says “state funds paid for about 10,600 Milwaukee choice students in grades three through eight and grade 10 to take WSAS exams in mathematics and reading last fall at no cost to the private schools.” WDPI also wrote, “private schools reported about 1.6 percent of choice students.”

Neither the 10,649 figure nor the separate “9 percent of students in the MPCP have special needs” promulgated by the press release is corroborated by official state data.

Patrick Gasper, WDPI communications officer, says schools in the voucher program are not required to comply with various accountability measures. “They’re not held to the same standards as public schools,” he says.

But Michael Ford, vice president of operations for School Choice Wisconsin, says the press release did not mean to suggest over 10,000 students have disabilities. He argues that the 1.6-percent figure published by WDPI should be based on the number of students who actually took the state test. “Kindergarten through second grade, ninth grade, 11th and 12th — those students did not take the test,” Ford says, yet they were included unfairly in the denominator that led to the small percentage.

MPCP has its own independent official evaluator, The School Choice Demonstration Project, which operates out of the University of Arkansas. The researchers associated with the project surveyed parents of pupils in the Milwaukee area, determining nine percent of MPCP students had disabilities to the 18 percent in MPS. That study was conducted in 2008 but the results are ongoing and a new report is likely to be released soon. Wisconsin DPI published a table indicating 20 percent of the city’s public school system enrollment is made up of students with disabilities.

Also, Ford wryly agrees with Gasper’s contention the city’s voucher program doesn’t undergo the same scrutiny as traditional public schools. “Schools that take part in [MPCP] go through an audit every year,” Ford says, “the public schools have one every three years.” The consequences for missing information in the audit also vary depending on the program, Ford maintains, since a participating voucher program school can lose its accreditation while a traditional public school suffers a less threatening second audit.

In one example of discrimination according to the federal complaint, a participating voucher school called Messmer told the mother a student her eight-year old child would not be enrolled without acquiring a prescription for her son’s ADHD.

That student’s younger brother, who receives speech therapy one hour a week at a school within MPS, was told by Messmer he could enter the school only if he revokes his IEP — an official status Wisconsin uses to recognize students with disabilities. He was also told he would not receive speech therapy upon matriculating. That decision would force the mother, who by default qualifies as low-income, to purchase speech therapy lessons out of her own pocket.

“That is blatant discrimination,” Spitzer-Resnick says.

The bill Disability Rights Wisconsin fought against that the press release said would expand funding for students with disabilities was AB110. Spitzer-Resnick says it would have shifted (PDF) more public school funding from traditional school districts without forcing schools to provide disability services to students. It would also force students to revoke their federal and state rights to special education rights.

The School Choice Demonstration Project is funded in part by the Walton Foundation, a trust possible through the immense fortune of the Watson Family, heirs to Wal-Mart. The Walton Foundation helped sponsor the National Choice Summit held by the American Federation for Children, a leading school choice group.

Another funder for the School Choice Demonstration Project is the Annie E. Casey Foundation, another well-heeled organization that publishes numerous studies in favor of charter schools and voucher programs.

Disability Rights Wisconsin has a budget of roughly $5 million, but risks losing $250,000 after Gov. Scott Walker cut some of its state funding in his budget proposal. The group is a 501c(3) protection advocacy agency. Federal rules insist all states must have a PAA that offers outreach and services to individual with special needs.

The complaint comes just before the Wisconsin Legislature is expected to present a two year budget to the governor that would cut nearly $1 billion from K-12 spending and expand the Milwaukee voucher program within the city and to at least one other county.

TAI has previously reported on those new provisions.

One of the more notable programs the governor’s budget would remove is a $10 million partnership between the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and district math teachers. A May memo released by the Wisconsin DPI asserted the substantial jump in student math scores on the state test was due in large part to the additional training math teachers received through the Pupil Achievement Grant.

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