(WORT)–U.S. Senator Ron Johnson’s amendment is only a few lines long, tucked away in a massive appropriations bill that still has yet to come up for a vote in the Senate.
But disability rights advocates worry the measure, if approved, would have big consequences for students with disabilities in private voucher schools.
Johnson’s amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act effectively blocks the Department of Justice from enforcing parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at private schools that receive public money.
A spokesperson for the Senator told the Washington Post this week that the purpose of the amendment is to stop politically-motivated efforts by the Obama Administration to “shut down school voucher programs by inappropriately expanding Title II over schools that would otherwise not be subject to the law.”
Private schools are not always and in all cases subject to the ADA, explains Lisa Pugh of Disability Rights Wisconsin.
“In some cases religious entities are exempt,” Pugh says, “But the court has weighed in differently [about] when the ADA does apply even in a religious setting” depending on the entity and on the accommodations required.
Back in 2011, Disability Rights Wisconsin, together with the ACLU of Wisconsin, filed a civil rights complaint against the state Department of Instruction to clarify that agency’s obligation to uphold the ADA in private schools participating in the state’s voucher program.
“Our complaint was really making the case based upon parents who had contacted our organizaiton that there were discriminatory policies that prevented access by children with disabilities in Wisconsin from full participation…in Wisconsin voucher schools,” Pugh says.
Pugh says the main result of that process was to increase awareness around DPI’s complaint process, both for parents, and for private voucher schools.
According to DPI spokesperson Tom McCarthy, since that complaint system was created in 2013, DPI has received no complaints of discrimination.
The amendment comes at a time when the state of Wisconsin is rolling out a brand new voucher program specifically for students with disabilities looking to attend private schools.
The Department of Public Instruction estimates that over 400 students will participate in the so-called Special Needs Scholarship Program this fall during its inaugural year. McCarthy says that figure is based on the number of seats private schools were willing to open to special needs participants.
Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin, says that the state’s new voucher program does nothing to address concerns raised in the 20-11 complaint around discrimination.
“The special needs voucher program puts all the power in the hands of the schools, it does not put it in the hands of the families,” Rotker says. “The voucher schools can decide whether they want to accept these children and the special needs voucher program imposes no obligation on them to do so.”
Joanne Juhnke of Wisconsin Family Ties, a statewide disability advocacy group, says the profiles of the 28 schools that have volunteered to accept special needs voucher students raise some concerns about whether they’re prepared to handle all-comers, and accommodate all needs.
“Many of the schools have put boundaries around what they’re interested in working with– only the very mildest of challenges,” Juhnke says.
“Only one of those schools mentioned that they are wheelchair accessible. 8 of the 28 say they are not wheelchair accessible, and the other 19 are silent on the issue.” Juhnke says this highlights the fact that ADA is “at issue in Wisconsin’s new voucher program.”
If Senator Johnson’s short amendment passes, it is unclear if or how the Department of Justice could compel such schools to become ADA compliant.
That, Junke says, is all the more reason for people to be paying close attention.
It is unclear when the Senate will vote on the appropriations bill and on Johnson’s amendment. Johnson’s office did not respond to request for comment Wednesday.