A lawsuit filed last month includes false claims about Wisconsin’s school choice programs and students with disabilities. The claims echo misleading and inaccurate digital media posts by Wisconsin Watch and The Wisconsin Examiner.
A new report counters the misinformation. It shows that more than 5,000 students with disabilities participate in one of four Wisconsin choice programs. The report’s estimates are consistent with a previous five-year academic study by a team that included then-Professor John Witte of the University of Wisconsin.
The data in the new report show that last year more than 150 schools in the state’s choice programs accepted 2,217 students with special needs scholarships. Dozens of other choice schools enrolled thousands more who likely would qualify for disability status.
The new report, and the earlier findings from Witte’s scholarly team, contradict a longstanding, unsubstantiated narrative from opponents of the state’s choice programs. Without evidence, they claim widespread discrimination against choice students with disabilities. The claims reflect recent misleading and factually false reporting at online media sites such as Wisconsin Watch and The Wisconsin Examiner. A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman has joined in to reinforce erroneous information.
State Reps. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) and Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) are among legislators who have accepted and circulated the inaccurate claims. In a recent statement reported by Wisconsin Public Radio, the two members of the Assembly said private schools in the choice programs “violate the civil rights of disabled students by denying their accommodations, excluding them from activities, or even ejecting these students outright.”
An extended scholarly effort to examine the issue was carried out by Witte, Professor Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, and Professor David Fleming of Furman University. Their work was part of a larger study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Witte’s longstanding research of school choice issues began when the DPI named him in the early 1990s to evaluate the Milwaukee program.
As testimony to the quality of their work, Witte and colleagues were invited to present their findings at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. They offered the following (emphasis added):
“Based on evidence we collected over five years … we are able to estimate that between 7.5 percent and 14.6 percent of (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) students have disabilities that likely would qualify them for special education services were they are attending Milwaukee Public Schools. … Our estimates … are more than four times higher than the official disability rate announced by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.”
Wisconsin choice programs have expanded statewide since the work of Witte, Wolf and Furman. Enrollment has grown to 54,949. Reflecting these changes, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and School Choice Wisconsin undertook research to update the earlier findings.
The WILL-SCW project included a representative survey of private choice schools that enroll 40 percent of participating students. The results show that between 10 percent and 11 percent of choice students likely have qualifying disabilities. This is almost exactly the midpoint of the findings from the five-year study by Witte and colleagues.
Similar to the earlier results, the WILL-SCW estimates are five times the estimates from the DPI. The WILL-SCW report explains the multiple reasons why the DPI’s estimates represent a substantial undercount.
Against reliable facts such as offered here, Ruth Conniff, editor of The Wisconsin Examiner, wrote at Urban Milwaukee recently that “Wisconsin voucher schools have a long record of expelling and counseling out expensive-to-educate students.” As I explained in rebuttal at the time, Conniff provided not a single instance of this happening. Instead, in act of journalistic malfeasance, she cites as supposed evidence a decade-old federal investigation — without telling readers the probe concluded with no finding of discrimination.
Relying in part on unsubstantiated allegations at Wisconsin Watch, Conniff and a Michigan State University professor claim that private choice schools reject and expel students with disabilities. They provide no evidence. Wisconsin Watch quoted a DPI spokesperson who falsely claimed that a student with a disability could be enrolled “in a private school one minute and be expelled the next.”
The recent statement from Reps. Shelton and Anderson advances the highly misleading claim that public schools accept all students regardless of disability. They assert, “We must guarantee that disabled students are never discriminated against because of their disability status.” As the new WILL-SCW report explains, public schools in the state’s Open Enrollment program have rejected thousands of transfer students based on disability status. State law allows them to do so. Further, within public districts many individual schools are not equipped to accept all students with disabilities.
Against the preponderance of facts, demonstrably false claims have persisted for years about school choice and disability students. They are left unchallenged by the mainstream media and advanced, with no accountability, by new social media outlets.
Nicholas Kelly is president of School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization supporting parental freedom and school choice. He previously served as principal of a private choice high school in Milwaukee.
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