Whose "Lies and Distortions?"

Are voucher schools adequately serving students with special needs?

Lies and Distortions complains about People For the American Way’s statement that voucher schools in Milwaukee can effectively “turn their backs on children with special needs.” In the booklet, Fuller and co-author Kaleem Caire cite a report by Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) to claim that 171 special needs children were being served by voucher schools. But the LAB actually reported that it “found 171 Choice pupils who had been identified by MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] as being in need of special education services. However, because private schools are not required to identify special needs children to any governmental agency, it is not known how many, if any, additional special needs pupils are potentially being served by the Choice program [emphases added].”1 In other words, the LAB reported that the progress of special needs students in voucher schools cannot be determined because voucher schools don’t have to either identify or report the status of these students. Even accepting Fuller’s numbers, the 171 special needs students represent a mere 2.8% of the 6,050 voucher student enrollment for that school year, compared with 13.9% in MPS.2 Put another way, if MPS had not previously identified these students prior to their entry into the voucher program, Fuller would not even be able to claim that voucher schools serve any special education students.

In addition, contrary to Fuller’s claims, the LAB report did not in any way describe “many private schools that do serve special needs students.”3 It only noted that students identified by the Milwaukee Public Schools as eligible for special services were attending voucher schools—it did not say whether these students’ needs were actually being met.

The LAB found that only seven voucher schools (8%) reported that they offered special education services.4 Even with respect to these schools, the LAB explained that “it is more likely that the services available are lower-cost services, such as those needed for children with speech and language disabilities or learning disabilities emphasis added].”5

Moreover, many Milwaukee voucher schools’ own descriptions of their services clearly discourage the applications of special needs students. A quick look at EPIC (Empowering Parents for Informed Choices in Education), an online Milwaukee school database for parents, provides insight into this practice. Schools maintain and update their own data and fill out a standard form. Sample responses for the section “Categories of Students Which School Cannot Serve” include: “Harambee Community School does not have special education teachers, therefore, we are unable to service children with a learning disability, physical disability and emotionally disturbed [sic].”6 Emmaus Lutheran cannot serve “CD [Cognitive Disabilities], LD [Learning Disabilities], ED [Emotional Disturbances],7 Some types of physically handicapped students.”8 Gospel Lutheran “cannot serve wheelchairbound students.”9 Blessed Sacrament writes: “We believe that students who are 2-3 years below grade level cannot be realistically brought up to grade level because we do not have a tutorial/learning center to accommodate their needs. Students who have severe emotional or behavioral problems need specific programs to assist them—we do not have a counselor or social worker.”10 Beautiful Savior Lutheran states explicitly that “we are not able to provide service to students with most physical disabilities, as well as to provide the needed support for many learning disabled students.”11

In short, while Milwaukee voucher schools cannot bar special education students from attending, they can and do “turn their backs” on such students by excluding special education services.

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