September 2013 Church & State | People & Events

 

A recent report by a Wisconsin watchdog group found that many schools participating in the state’s voucher program refuse to accept special-needs students. 

WisconsinWatch.org, a project of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, recently took a hard look at vouchers in the Badger State, focusing specifically on 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.

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.

“The problem with the voucher program is that it cherry-picks which students it’s going to take,” Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), 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.”

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 his mother was told not to even bother; he’d have to get that in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

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. Critics say students with disabilities are enrolled in private schools and then kicked out once those deadlines are met and the check is in the bank.

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. AU says that is exactly what is happening.

Despite these problems, Wisconsin legislators refuse to put more controls on the program. In fact, they are expanding it statewide.

In other voucher news:

Two voucher programs will soon be operating in North Carolina. A $10 million program, which takes effect during the 2014-2015 school year, was inserted into the state budget. Under the plan, students whose families meet certain income guidelines will be able to use taxpayer money for tuition at private schools. The legislature also passed a bill (H. 269) to authorize vouchers for special-needs students. That plan will give qualified students up to $6,000 for private school tuition or therapy in the case of home-schooled students. Gov. Pat McCrory approved the budget and signed the separate voucher bill into law. 

The U.S. House of Representatives voted July 19 to remove a federal voucher program from an education reauthorization bill. The program was part of an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but it failed 221-207. However the House did approve a “portability” provision that would allow students to use certain federal funds for tuition at charter and public schools. Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett said she is concerned about this issue and will continue to monitor it.