Douglas County Program Discriminates Against Students with Disabilities

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Disability Law Colorado filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division alleging that a Douglas County School District voucher program was discriminatory against students with disabilities. 

The Complaint

On July 18, 2011, Disability Law Colorado filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, against the Douglas County School District (DCSD) for violating Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act in denying equal access to students with disabilities.

Douglas County’s “Choice Scholarship Program” has attracted a great deal of media attention from advocates for and against the use of vouchers to subsidize tuition for parents who wish to send their children to private schools.

Disability Law Colorado was not the only organization to object to the pilot program. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed suits objecting to public funds being used to fund private—especially religious—schools. On August 12, Denver District Judge Michael A. Martinez issued a permanent injunction against the district’s Choice Scholarship Program, and it is now on hold.

Public Funds for Private Schools

Disability Law Colorado takes no position on the broader issue of diverting public funds to private schools—our concern is with a program that purports to expand educational choice, but in effect reduces or eliminates educational opportunities for children with disabilities.

In addition to a growing list of potential private school partners for this experimental voucher program (the district uses the term “scholarship”), Douglas County has created a public charter school, the Choice Scholarship School, that provides only limited services to students with disabilities, does not provide special education services, and only serves students with “mild” disabilities.

Choice Scholarship Program

In order to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program/Choice Scholarship School, parents of students with disabilities must forgo needed accommodations and support services for their children.

Federal law requires public schools to accommodate the needs of all students with disabilities by providing a “free and appropriate public education.” Despite the fact that the Choice Scholarship School is a public charter school, it will treat students in special education as “parentally placed private school children” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

As parentally placed private school children, these students will only have access to limited services and will not be offered individualized services through an individualized education program (IEP). Parents of students without disabilities are not asked to forgo any of their children’s rights.

Douglas County, in promoting “choice,” has discriminated against students with disabilities by offering vouchers, called “scholarships,” for private schools that provide only limited services, if any, for students with disabilities.

Our Position

At Disability Law Colorado, we believe that choice is important. We also believe that all families, including those with children with disabilities, should have access to that choice.

The Choice Scholarship Program is currently on hold following Judge Martinez’ decision.

Disability Law Colorado will be monitoring the school district to ensure that any resumption of the Choice Scholarship Program includes real choice for students with disabilities.

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