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US Department of Justice rules state voucher programs may not discriminate against students with disabilities

In a letter released this week, the U.S. Department of Justice affirmed that Wisconsin must ensure that students with disabilities who seek to attend or are currently enrolled in private schools through the state’s taxpayer-funded voucher program “do not encounter discrimination on the basis of their disabilities.” Hat tip to Diane Ravitch for highlighting this news today on her blog.

“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. The letter goes on to clearly spell out how Wisconsin must make efforts to ensure that their school choice program comply with Title II federal regulations.

The ACLU and other Wisconsin-based organizations filed a complaint with DOJ in 2011 alleging that students with disabilities were discriminated against in Milwaukee’s voucher schools.

The ruling will have a far-reaching impact as voucher programs in 20 states will be required to monitor their programs for compliance with federal laws protecting the disabled.

North Carolina is on track to introduce its own voucher program in the state with Rep. Stam’s HB 944, Opportunity Scholarship Act. The bill has not yet been heard in committee, but if and when it is, it seems certain that lawmakers will be asked to consider the plan’s potential conflicts with Title II federal regulations, given this week’s ruling. As it stands now, there is no mention of students with disabilities in the bill’s eligibility requirements.

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