Responding to a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Department of Justice warned voucher schools in Milwaukee to stop excluding, counseling out, or otherwise discriminating against students with disabilities.

“The state cannot, by delegating the education function to private voucher schools, place students beyond the reach of the federal laws that require Wisconsin to eliminate disability discrimination in its administration of public programs,” DOJ officials wrote in the letter to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers.

Voucher programs across the nation–now operating in 20 states–will be affected, and states are now obliged to monitor voucher programs to be sure they are in compliance with federal laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

The ACLU contended that the voucher program excluded students with disabilities, and if they were admitted, they were systematically expelled and/or pushed out. This practice led to a very large percentage of students with disabilities in the public school district even as its funding was declining due to loss of enrollment to vouchers and charters. Consequently, the so-called “failing” district cannot possibly recover because the private schools don’t accept students with disabilities and the public school has to accept all comers. And despite their exclusion of students with disabilities, the voucher schools in Wisconsin DO NOT outperform the public schools.

A statement issued by the ACLU warned of the danger of choice programs:

“Publicly-funded voucher programs have the effect of setting up a separate escape hatch for only a few, leaving the majority of the poor students in schools that are even less likely to succeed than they were before the voucher program or tax credit began. Furthermore, the private schools that spring up to educate a child for $6,500 are producing results that are no better than the public school district – in Milwaukee, for example, three years of comparison test scores show they are performing worse than the public system. We also know that the Milwaukee parents who take advantage of these programs tend to have higher education levels and children without disabilities, leaving the public school district with a higher percentage of children with disabilities and parents with less education. There are few checks in place to ensure that all of the schools accepting vouchers are more than glorified day care providing convenient hours for parents.”

Even more ominous is the specter of segregation academies in the south:

“…some private schools in states like Georgia and Alabama, where tax credits have recently been put into place, 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. We know this because Milwaukee’s voucher program already excludes students with disabilities and segregates them into the public school district while at the same time stripping the district of much needed funds to educate them. If we permit this to continue, we are condoning separate schools for a number of groups of students, including racial minorities, students with disabilities, religious minorities and LGBT students. What we have known for the fifty years since Brown v. Board of Education is that separate is not equal. School voucher programs and tax credits do not provide a choice for everyone. They create publicly funded separate schools.”