Courtney Bowie is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. In this article, she describes the ACLU’s efforts to stop discrimination against students with disabilities in Wisconsin’s voucher program. Privatization, she says, is promoting segregation and rolling back decades of legal advances for students of color and students with disabilities.
In Wisconsin and elsewhere, voucher supporters have fought efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee their voucher programs.
There are now over 20 states and the District of Columbia that use public funds to subsidize private school enrollment, whether it’s a tax credit for parents of students attending private schools or voucher programs, like the one in Wisconsin, that give a student a taxpayer-funded voucher worth a certain amount to pay private school tuition. These programs are touted as giving poor students, often in so-called “failing districts,” the same “choice” that wealthy students have. In Wisconsin and Indiana, these programs are springing up statewide and in public school districts that are not failing. The argument that these programs are an escape from failing school districts is rapidly falling apart as more and more programs are statewide and aimed at decreasing the tuition costs of students’ families who already can afford private schools.
As these public subsidies for private schools expand throughout the country, the civil rights umbrella available to public school students is at risk of folding. In some states like Georgia and Alabama, private schools benefiting from voucher or tax credit programs were founded as segregation academies to thwart federal integration efforts. While the program in Milwaukee and its school district serve almost entirely students of color, as “school choice” spreads around the country, the stage is set for these programs to become even more exclusionary and segregated. If states and local communities permit this to continue, they will cement the public funding of separate schools for only select groups of students, which evidence shows will disproportionately exclude racial minorities, students with disabilities, religious minorities, and LGBT students. This flies in the face of what we have known for the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education — separate is not equal….
Voucher supporters in Wisconsin say Washington has declared war on them when it’s clear the Justice Department only wants to ensure school privatization doesn’t undermine the hard-fought gains of educational equity in the places most historically resistant to it. The only logical conclusion from this response is that voucher supporters fear oversight and want to continue to operate in a civil rights vacuum.
If that is their fear, then we know what the true purpose of Wisconsin’s voucher program is. It is to create segregated school systems, both in terms of race and in terms of disability. The result is a public school district deprived of the resources to educate its students and left with those most difficult to educate.
Stopping this from getting even worse would be a war worth fighting.