Supporters of school voucher schemes love to throw around the world “choice.”
“You’ll get to send your child to the school of your choice!” they blare. To a lot of people, it sounds good. After all, everyone likes having choices, right?
Unfortunately, all of the rhetoric in the world doesn’t do you any good when it comes to vouchers because you don’t really have the choice. The private school does. Many of those schools will simply choose not to admit your child.
Some parents in Wisconsin are learning that the hard way.
WisconsinWatch.org, a project of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, recently took a hard look at vouchers in the Badger State, specifically how students with learning disabilities and other challenges are faring in private schools.
The answer is not too well – because the private schools taking part in the voucher program mostly refuse to serve them.
The author of the piece, Rory Linnane, interviewed Milwaukee resident Kim Fitzer, whose daughter Trinity suffers from medical and behavioral issues.
Fitzer used a voucher worth $6,442 to enroll Trinity in Northwest Catholic School for kindergarten during the 2011-12 academic year. In March of 2012, the school expelled Trinity, citing “continuing behavior issues” – but it kept the money.
Not surprisingly, Trinity ended up in a public school. There she was enrolled in a program designed to meet her special needs, although the school didn’t get any extra money to help her.
This has been a problem with just about every voucher plan in the country. The private schools (most of which are religious) are happy to take all of the taxpayer money they can get their hands on. But they don’t want any accountability, oversight or regulation. Furthermore, they demand the right to deny admission to or expel students as they see fit.
“The problem with the voucher program is that it cherry-picks which students it’s going to take,” Rep. Cory Mason, a Racine Democrat, told WisconsinWatch. “That’s not really a public education system, when you’re not opening it up to everyone and giving everyone a chance to participate.”
Jane Audette, a social worker at Hawthorne Elementary School, a public school located just one block away from Northwest Catholic, noted that every year Hawthorne ends up enrolling several “cast-off” students from Northwest Catholic and other private schools who are in need of special-education services.
“What has happened over and over with Northwest Catholic is they will tell a parent, ‘Your child needs more than we can give your child, so we suggest you go down the street to Hawthorne,’” Audette said.
Wisconsin’s voucher program is currently limited to Milwaukee and Racine. In Racine, schools taking part in the “choice” program reported enrolling a grand total of one student with a disability. By contrast, the Racine Unified School District reports that about 18 percent of its students have disabilities.
The situation has gotten so bad that the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin are suing the state. Their complaint asserts, “The voucher schools tend not to admit or accommodate students with disabilities.”
The complaint cites an anonymous parent who sought to enroll her son in Messmer Catholic Schools in Milwaukee. The boy needed speech therapy, and she was told not to even bother; he’d have to get that in the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Incredibly, under Wisconsin’s voucher law, private schools get to keep half of the voucher as long as a student is enrolled on the third Friday of September. They get to keep the entire amount if the student is enrolled on the second Friday in January.
You can guess what happens: Students with disabilities are enrolled in private schools and then kicked out once those deadlines are met and the check is safely in the bank.
“We have seen that children with behavioral issues are signed into a voucher school, and once they get past the third Friday – the Kodak moment for determining headcount – there’s a phenomenon that occurs that students are no longer able to participate in the private school,” said Gary Myrah, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services, a group that represents special-education professionals.
Vouchers have a lengthy history in Wisconsin. When the program first took hold in the early 1990s, Americans United and other groups warned that private schools would demand tax funds and resist any attempt to hold them accountable. That is exactly what is happening. Yet legislators refuse to do the right thing and put some brakes on the program. In fact, they are expanding it statewide.
For Trinity, the story has a happy ending. She’s taking part in a special program in her public school and is doing well. About 10 weeks from now, a new flock of special-needs kids will likely be unceremoniously tossed out of “choice” schools despite the vouchers their parents have in hand.
We can only hope they manage to land on their feet as well.