Behind the Headline: Feds Quietly Close Long-Running Probe of Milwaukee Voucher Program

By 01/24/2016

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Feds Quietly Close Long-Running Probe of Milwaukee Voucher Program
1/4/16 | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Behind the Headline
Special Choices
Summer 2012 | Education Next

An investigation that was launched more than four years ago into whether the Milwaukee private school voucher program discriminates against students with disabilities has been closed.

The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on Dec. 23, 2015 saying that no further action is warranted.

A 2012 study by Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte and David J. Fleming investigated whether voucher schools in Milwaukee were serving as many students with disabilities as public schools were. The question is complicated, as the authors explain.

The main reason for the lack of accurate information is that private schools do not operate under the provisions of the federal law that furnishes aid to the states for students identified as needing special education. Public schools expend considerable resources identifying children eligible for special services, both because they are under an obligation to provide those services and because they receive additional funds from federal and state governments if a child is identified as having a disability that affects their learning. Those obligations, rights, and funding support do not apply if parents choose to place their children in private schools with the help of a voucher. By and large, private schools have not developed the capacity to identify children with disabilities, and many of them are reluctant to do so, as they believe it leads to stigmatization of the children.

In other words, a child who may be classified as in need of special education in a public school may not be classified as such if his or her family chooses a private school, using a voucher to defray the cost. As a result, any official statistics on the prevalence of students with disabilities in public and private schools can be highly misleading.

The authors of the study, “Special Choices: Do voucher schools serve students with disabilities?” found that

while the percentage of students in the voucher schools with disabilities is substantially lower than the disability rate in the public schools, it is at least four times higher than public officials have claimed. These statistical findings reinforce our views that the sectors cannot be easily compared to one another on this particular metric, because they operate under different legal obligations, financial incentives, and cultural norms. Special education is special in very different ways in public schools and in voucher programs.

– Education Next

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