A long-term investigation into the Milwaukee private school voucher program has finally been closed by the US Department of Justice. The initial claim was that the program discriminated against students with disabilities, but no significant examples of wrongdoing were found, writes Erin Richards of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.
The Justice Department quietly sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Instruction in late December explaining that no further action would be necessary. Changes were requested two years ago by the Department, asking the DPI to make available certain information concerning the voucher program, but the DPI could not follow through on these directives because sharing the data was prohibited by state law.
According to the letter, the Justice Department can investigate any future complaints should they arise. Managing attorney Monica Murphy said the organization Disability Rights Wisconsin, one of the groups that brought the 2011 complaint, may pursue individual actions for the families involved.
School voucher advocates felt the move was politically motivated to undermine the private, often religious, schools in the state that receive public funding.
"Finally, after four years of a systematic, legally dubious investigation, there will be closure without any finding of discrimination in the school choice program," said Jim Bender, president of the advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin.
Although private schools that are connected to the Milwaukee voucher program must accept students with disabilities, private institutions are not bound to offer the same special education services or physical accommodations that federal law requires of public schools. Voucher schools receive less funding than public schools for providing special education availability.
Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that allowed other private schools across the state to offer vouchers, and the 2015-2017 state budget has created a voucher program for students with special needs which would award them about $12,000 per year to attend private school in the 2016-2017 school year.
The information requested by the Justice Department, which the private schools were not mandated to provide, was the number of students with disabilities who were enrolled in each school and their grade level and disability for the 2013-2014 school year. No consequences followed the withholding of the data by the voucher schools.
The DPI created a new online form as a vehicle for parents to submit any discrimination complaints about voucher schools, but as of November there have been no complaints, according to CJ Szafir, vice president for policy and deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Szafir's conservative law firm has regularly requested status reports on the investigation from the DPI.
"Part of the benefit of school choice is that parents get to decide where to send their children," Szafir said. "Perhaps they don't want to get under the (federal disability) laws, so they go to private schools to educate their kids with disabilities in a different manner than what they'd get in the public schools."
Private schools that receive public monies by way of tuition payments for qualifying students are known as voucher schools. During the 2014-2015 school year, 26,930 Milwaukee students attended one of the 113 private schools by using a voucher.
The Milwaukee program began in 1990 and officially is known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. It is the longest-running urban voucher school program in the nation.