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Pocan Requests Federal Review of Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Voucher Program

Dec 19, 2014
Press Release
Lawmakers Raise Questions About Discrimination and Accountability

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02) has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) for a review of Wisconsin’s Parental Choice voucher program, specifically examining how this program has lacked accountability standards and transparency. A GAO review will provide a thorough examination and shed light on the program’s shortcomings. This non-partisan review will help to better inform the national discussion on the importance of supporting public schools.  Full text of the letter is available here

“Every child in Wisconsin and across the United States deserves the right to a high-quality education,” said Rep. Mark Pocan. “Before Governor Walker tries to expand the state’s voucher program, Wisconsin taxpayers deserve to know more about the widespread reports of discrimination against students with disabilities and the insufficient academic accountability of choice schools.”

“We owe it to every student to ensure publicly funded schools – including voucher schools – provide high-quality education and protect the rights of students with disabilities,” continued Rep. Pocan. “I look forward to the GAO’s thorough non-partisan review of Wisconsin’s voucher program and clear answers to the questions we have raised.”

Wisconsin’s voucher program is central to an emerging national debate over the privatization of public education.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and many in the Republican Party have pushed the idea of expanding voucher schools nationwide – using Wisconsin as the model – without safeguarding the needs of students with disabilities and ensuring schools meet high standards of academic achievement. 

Advocates for people with disabilities, including the ACLU and Disability Rights Wisconsin, have raised concerns that Wisconsin’s school choice program, either tacitly or explicitly, allows participating choice schools to discriminate against students with disabilities in their admission policies. After numerous complaints, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an ongoing investigation into Wisconsin’s School Choice program, and sent a letter in 2013 urging the Wisconsin Department of Instruction do more to “enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A recent study by the Wisconsin State Journal revealed Wisconsin has spent $139 million on school vouchers to private schools that were eventually disqualified from the state’s program. Eleven schools participating in the program were removed within a year of opening due to poor educational standards, which costs taxpayers $4.1 million dollars. 

Students with disabilities are underrepresented at Wisconsin voucher schools. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, of the approximately 21,000 students who attend private schools using state-subsidized vouchers, 1.6% are identified as having special education plans. This contrasts sharply with the nearly 20% of the approximately 81,000 students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools who have special education plans in place. Notably, in the Racine Unified School District, choice schools reported only 1 student with a disability attending their schools, out of the 165 special needs students in the entire school district.