May 15, 2023

Phoebe Petrovic: False choice: Wisconsin taxpayers support schools that can discriminate

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Phoebe Petrovic is an investigative reporter for Wisconsin Watch, where she just published this in depth look at how Wisconsin’s voucher program funnels taxpayer dollars to discriminatory private schools. 

Wisconsin is considered the birthplace of the “school choice” movement. The nation’s first publicly funded private voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990. Initial restrictions, such as limiting vouchers to secular schools, have disappeared as the program has expanded. Today, 32 schools — including at least one with an anti-LGBTQ+ stance — have their entire student bodies on publicly funded vouchers.

Legal discrimination against students who are LGBTQ+ or have disabilities results from a lack of state-level protections; a federal exemption that allows religious entities to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and another that requires schools taking federal funds to make only minor adjustments for students with disabilities; and a state education agency constrained by punctilious rules and decades of litigation.

“It’s unfortunate,” DPI communications director Abigail Swetz told Wisconsin Watch by email. “We want children to be included, welcomed, and safe in all schools, especially those that receive public funding. It is what we expect as good stewards of public dollars and as educators who value all children.”

The president of School Choice Wisconsin, Nicholas Kelly, said by email that his organization “support(s) and encourage(s) compliance with all rules and processes set in place to address issues of this nature.” He did not respond to specific questions.

After publication, Kelly disputed that private schools discriminate. He provided a statement that read, in part, “Fundamentally, parental choice and educational freedom provide accountability. If parents or students are not satisfied with the education they receive they can choose another school.”

Wisconsin Watch reviewed public materials for about one-third of the state’s voucher schools and found that nearly half had policies or statements that appeared to discriminate against students who are LGBTQ+ or have disabilities, often citing religious principles or lack of capacity to accommodate certain conditions.

Some handbooks say administrators may decline to enroll students with disabilities whose needs they cannot meet. Others say they might refuse enrollment to students whose families support LGBTQ+ people. Some, like Fox Valley Lutheran, might expel students who engage in “homosexual behavior” off campus. One will even expel students if their parents’ conduct is “contrary to the Bible.”

“Let’s just stop calling it a ‘choice program,’ ” said Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney and disability education advocate. “And let’s call it a private discriminatory education program funded with your tax dollars.”

This piece gets into considerable detail, including stories like the two seniors ejected from sports because they were in a same-gender relationship. Read the full post here. 

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