Justice Department Determines Private School Voucher Programs Must Comply with the ADA

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     Last week the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) affirming that Wisconsin must ensure that students with disabilities who seek to enroll or are enrolled in private schools through Wisconsin’s taxpayer funded voucher program are not discriminated against on the basis of their disability. Wisconsin enacted laws creating the tax payer funded private school voucher program over 20 years ago and it was implemented in the city of Milwaukee by DPI. In June 2011 a collation of advocacy groups (the ACLU Foundation for Racial Justice, ACLU of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin) filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that students in the Milwaukee Public Schools are (1) deterred by DPI and the private voucher schools from participating in the voucher program, (2) denied admission to voucher schools when they do apply, and (3) expelled or constructively forced to leave voucher schools as a result of policies and practices that fail to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. These advocacy groups claimed the actions by DPI and the private voucher schools violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

          The Department of Justice investigated the allegations of the complaint and interviewed parents and public school district officials. Based on the investigation, DOJ determined that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) must do more to enforce the ADA requirements that govern the treatment of students with disabilities who participate in the private school voucher program. Because the voucher program is publicly funded and administered by the state, it must comply with Title II of the ADA. Title II is the section of the ADA that applies to state and local governmental entities. Thus, DPI must ensure students with disabilities are not discriminated against based on their disability. According to the letter: “DPI's obligation to eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities in its administration of the school choice program is not obviated by the fact that the schools participating in the program are private secular and religious schools. Indeed, courts recognize that the agency administering a public program has the authority and obligation under Title II to take appropriate steps in its enforcement of program requirements to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities; regardless of whether services are delivered directly by a public entity or provided through a third-party.” Specifically, DOJ required the Wisconsin DOI to comply with:

  1. ADA Title II Obligations. DPI must eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities or students whose parents or guardians have disabilities. The private or religious status of the individual voucher schools does not absolve DPI of that responsibility.
  2. Complaints. DPI must establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to file disability-based complaints and provide DOJ with copies of those complaints.
  3. Data and Reporting. DPI must provide detailed data regarding how students with disabilities are being served by voucher schools.
  4. Public Outreach. DPI must conduct outreach to educate families of students with disabilities about school choice programs, and provide specific and accurate information about the rights of students with disabilities and the services available at voucher schools.
  5. Monitoring and Oversight. DPI must ensure that voucher schools do not discourage students with disabilities from applying for admission, or improperly reject a student with a disability who does apply to a voucher school. Voucher schools cannot exit/expel a student with a disability unless the school has first determined, on a case-by-case basis, that there are no reasonable modifications to school policies, practices or procedures that would enhance the school’s ability to serve the student.
  6. ADA Training for Voucher Schools. DPI must provide mandatory ADA training to voucher schools on a periodic basis and submit a copy of the training materials and attendance sheets to DOJ.
  7. Guidance. By the end of 2013, DPI must develop program guidance to assist and educate voucher schools about ADA compliance. That guidance must be developed in consultation with DOJ.