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Feds close investigation into Milwaukee voucher program (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Federal officials have closed a long-running investigation into whether Milwaukee’s school voucher program discriminates against disabled students.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department in 2011 alleging that disabled students are deterred from participating in the Milwaukee voucher program, denied admission when they do apply and expelled or forced to leave as a result of policies that don’t accommodate them.

Justice Department trial attorney Colleen Phillips sent state education officials a letter on Dec. 23 saying the agency had closed the investigation.

Phillips noted that the agency sent a letter to the state Department of Public Instruction in April 2013 outlining changes or additions that were made to DPI policies to ensure its administration of the Milwaukee voucher program adhered to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That letter ordered the state to ensure disabled students in the voucher program don’t face discrimination and set up a complaint procedure. It also demanded that the DPI conduct ADA training at voucher schools, conduct a public outreach campaign to educate disabled students and their families about voucher schools, and gather data on disabled students enrolled or forced out of the program in 2013-14.

The demand for data angered conservatives, who accused the Justice Department of working with the DPI to intimidate voucher schools and undermine the program. The DPI requested the information but warned the federal agency that it lacked the statutory authority to require voucher schools to turn it over. DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said Monday that he was checking on whether the agency received any statistics from the schools.

Phillips noted that the Justice Department had been monitoring the DPI’s subsequent actions, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote that legislators passed a law in May that created a new disability voucher program. Under the program, disabled students who have been denied enrollment in a public school outside of their home district through open enrollment can attend a private school with state vouchers beginning in the fall of 2016. She said DPI officials agreed to provide the federal agency with any complaints it receives about the program.

The Justice Department didn’t need to take further action, she said.

Monica Murphy, an attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said the group is disappointed that the Justice Department ended the probe.

“It wasn’t a total loss,” she said. “(The complaint) helped raise awareness of this even being an issue. We’re certainly going to monitor what happens with the special needs voucher as they roll it out.”

The ACLU’s Wisconsin chapter didn’t immediately respond to a phone message Monday seeking comment. Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in an email that the decision to close the probe doesn’t preclude investigating future complaints.

The voucher program offers poor students state subsidies to attend private schools. The program began in 1990 in Milwaukee, which became the nation’s first city to offer such subsidies. Since 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature have expanded the program statewide, eliminated enrollment caps in Milwaukee and Racine, and raised income limits to allow middle-class students to participate.

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