When School Choice Means No Choice
Common wisdom tells us that more options are better options, and that increased competition creates cheaper and more efficient services. This, it would seem, is the theory behind the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, MPCP exists today as a program which provides vouchers to pay for private school to families making up to 175% of the poverty threshold, or about $38,000 for a family of four in the Milwaukee school district. The schools in the program run the gamut of secular and religious private schools, many of them subsisting entirely on state tax dollars through the vouchers, and MPCP now includes almost 21,000 students. Putting aside the issue of public funds going to private schools, common wisdom also tells us that the sheer size of this program should be a sign of effectiveness. But it isn’t. For two big reasons.
First, the private schools aren’t actually doing better than the public schools, which was the whole point of instituting this program in the first place. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, economically disadvantaged students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have the same or higher test scores than all students at MPCP schools.
But this is really about choice and having options, right? And that’s where the second problem comes in: There are thousands of Milwaukee students with disabilities who end up not having any choice. Of the 16,000 Milwaukee students with disabilities, only 335 attend private voucher schools. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put it, “The major way the voucher schools differ from the public schools is in their almost total exclusion of students with disabilities.” In a formal complaint against the state and two of the MPCP schools, the ACLU, Disability Rights Wisconsin and two Milwaukee families cite statistical evidence and individual examples of students being discouraged from applying to, or even being expelled from, MPCP schools on the basis of their disabilities, without any indication that these students are receiving appropriate accommodations as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Take the case of BJ, an 8th grader enrolled at an MPCP school. Despite having been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and found eligible for accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), BJ received no accommodations at the school. She was expelled after a single altercation with another student, a symptom of ODD and an area in which her parents believed she was improving.
Unfortunately this problem of inadequately serving students with disabilities is not unique to Wisconsin’s school choice program. Charter schools, another popular school choice model, have recently come under fire for allegedly discriminating against students with disabilities. According to Newsweek magazine, the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD), which has 37 charter schools and a total of 4,500 students with disabilities, suspended a total of 1,500 students with disabilities, and some charter schools in the district suspended more than 50 percent of their students with disabilities. In addition, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that only about 300 students with disabilities graduated from RSD schools with a high school diploma in 2008-2009. Even in Washington, D.C., which is often Congress’ testing ground for national policy, charter schools have a proportion problem. It may not be as extreme as New Orleans or Milwaukee, but The Washington Post found that even though 18 percent of students in the D.C. school district are receiving special education services, the percentage in charter schools is sauntering down to 11 percent–and the students and parents feel increasingly pushed out.
If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has his way, the upper limit on family income to participate in MPCP will be eliminated, making these mediocre schools a haven for the wealthy trying to escape from MPS and institutionalizing segregation in Milwaukee: the segregation of students with disabilities from those without. We must defend our schools from these kinds of “choice-making policies,” otherwise we will soon have a country with some students and families making decisions about schools while millions of students with disabilities lack the ability to make a choice at all.
Benjamin Phelps is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program, interning at Religious Action Center.