Phoebe Petrovic: Federal, state law permit disability discrimination in Wisconsin voucher schools
Writing for Wisconsin Watch, Phoebe Petrovic reminds us that vouchers provide little “parent power” for parents of students with special needs. She talks to advocacy specialist Joanne Juhnke.
The calls Juhnke receives from voucher families often contain the same story. A family has enrolled a child with disabilities in a private school. Administrators have begun pressuring the student to leave or have kicked them out, something public schools cannot do. The parents are shocked. They’re sure the schools can’t do that.
Many times, Juhnke has to tell them: Yes, they can.
“You went into this school choice program thinking that you were the one, as the parents, who have the choice,” she said. “Really, on the other end, the school holds more choice cards than you do, and you’re coming out on the wrong side of that.”
Private schools participating in any of the four state voucher programs — the Milwaukee, Racine and Wisconsin Parental Choice Programs and the Special Needs Scholarship Program — may legally expel students with disabilities if staff determines they cannot accommodate their needs with minor adjustments or deem their behavior too disruptive.
And as upsetting as this may feel to parents, Juhnke said it’s even worse for the students themselves.
“It’s very disruptive,” she said, adding that “stability for a student with disabilities is often even more important” than for those without disabilities.
And expelled students’ funding may take time to follow them back to public schools, as voucher payments correspond to pupil counts made early in each semester.
Reviewing public materials for about one-third of the state’s 373 voucher schools, Wisconsin Watch found that about 15% had policies or statements appearing to discriminate against students with disabilities, often citing limited capacity to meet their needs. This figure omits schools that make no mention of disability accommodation.
“We know not all schools in these programs employ such practices, but the fact that the law allows it is unacceptable,” said DPI communications director Abigail Swetz. “We owe it to our learners and their families to make the necessary changes to ensure these schools provide access to all children, regardless of their ability.”