Today’s conservative movement can’t find a government service they wouldn’t want to privatize, and top among those prizes is public education. This includes not only slashing funding for public secondary and post-secondary institutions, but funneling students into private schools using public dollars in the form of vouchers.
Proponents of the voucher system insist they provide families the greatest degree of flexibility and choice and prevent families from being “trapped” in failing school districts. Those who oppose voucher programs say that those dollars could be used to remedy problems in troubled schools.
But like it or not, privatization of public education is here, so the next step is to make sure those private institutions benefiting from public dollars abide by the same rules and provide the same access to all students, not just a select few. This is particularly true for students with special needs who have historically been squeezed out or isolated from access to educational services and opportunities.
That’s the case in Wisconsin’s largest public school district according to the American Civil Liberties Union who has called on the Department of Justice to investigate the systematic discrimination against and exclusion of students with disabilities in Wisconsin’s school voucher program.
The state is poised to significantly expand this program, despite complaints that the program sanctions the exclusion and segregation of students with disabilities. In the Milwaukee Public School District there are approximately 81,000 students, including approximately 16,000 students with disabilities. Those schools and those students share dollars with the voucher program — a program that serves an almost exclusively non-disabled population.
According to attorneys with the ACLU of Wisconsin, approximately 1.6 percent of voucher students have disabilities, while 19.5 percent of Milwaukee Public School students do. With only one set of resources for both, it is easy to predict what will happen to those students who remain in the Milwaukee Public School system.
Furthermore, by treating the voucher schools as private schools rather than public (despite giving these schools public dollars), the state has in effect refused to hold those schools accountable to non-discrimination standards mandated in public schools. That has left open the opportunity for those schools to discriminate against students with disabilities by refusing them admission or accommodation.
Public education evolved in part because of a growing social need to provide access to opportunity for all our children, regardless of race, gender or ability. It is the promise one generation offers to the next: That opportunity will not be dictated by the fluke of being born into privilege or not. But that is a promise that we are apparently no longer willing to make, or at least one we no longer intend to honor. And that might just be the greatest tragedy to come out of the modern conservative movement.
photo courtesy of CCAC North Library via Flickr