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Southeastern Wisconsin Demands Equity in Transit – Civil Rights and Environmental Justice Implications of SEWRPC

18 Jul

This week, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation took another step in speaking up for people who use public transit. In southeastern Wisconsin, plans for spending your tax dollars are being made in a way that are discriminatory and contribute harm to our environment. Here’s how our comments to a regional planning organization impact the civil rights of people who live in Milwaukee.

Here is the update from ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation’s Karyn Rotker. Ms. Rotker is the foundation’s Race, Poverty and Civil Liberties Attorney: 

Background on transportation decision-makers in government:

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are agencies created by government to address regional planning. And the big reason they’re important – especially in a segregated region like southeastern Wisconsin – is that they have a lot of say over what happens with federal transportation dollars. The MPO for the seven counties in and around Milwaukee is the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

Because we know that persons of color and persons with disabilities in southeastern Wisconsin are much more likely to depend on public transit – for work, school, medical care, and more – and because Wisconsin is spending billions of dollars to beef up highways while public transit is in crisis, we’re telling the federal government that it needs to make our planners put more focus on transit and less on adding highway capacity – which just leads to more segregated sprawl.  These maps, prepared by SEWRPC itself, show just how isolated persons of color and persons with disabilities are.

The role of the federal government:

Every four years, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have to certify that MPOs are following federal laws, including civil rights and environmental justice standards. Because we don’t think these concerns have been taken seriously in the past, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and our civil rights and environmental justice allies put together some comments that go into the background of segregation in this region along with a lot of suggestions on what needs to improve. To download our most recent comments, click on the document link at the bottom of the page.

What SEWRPC needs to change to ensure nondiscriminatory transit options:

The comments are available on the web, but some of our main points are that our regional planners need to make sure that:

• They use more federal “highway” funds to expand transit: federal rules on spending allow for the option to use funds for highway OR transit projects. SEWRPC should use flex funds to expand transit options to meet environmental justice needs in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Priorities should emphasize civil rights and environmental justice: a transportation improvement plan should look at how decisions impact minority neighborhoods and urban workers’ ability to access their jobs from affordable housing. SEWRPC doesn’t.

• Urban residents needs fair representation on the commission: The way SEWRPC is structured now, Ozaukee County – which has less than 10% of the number of residents as Milwaukee County – gets the same number of votes as Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee, where the majority of the whole region’s population of color and a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities live, gets no vote at all. For SEWRPC to fairly represent the region, the makeup of the commission should reflect populations proportionately. 

We hope that this time the federal government takes those concerns seriously. If you want to join us in speaking up for fair transit, contact me at the ACLU of Wisconsin, krotker@aclu-wi.org.

Recertification Review Comments July 16, 2012-2

ACLU of WI Urges Legislators to Reject Flawed Disability Voucher Plan

5 Mar

Today the ACLU of Wisconsin urged legislators to reject a plan that could unintentionally worsen the quality of education for students with disabilities in Wisconsin. While AB 110 would provide vouchers for students with disabilities to attend religious or private schools in Wisconsin, the bill wouldn’t ensure that voucher-subsidized schools would provide adequate services. Without holding these schools to improved and consistent standards, this tax subsidy to religious and private schools would take away scarce resources from public schools.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin continues our objection to subsidizing religious and other private schools with taxpayer dollars while they refuse to be held to the same non-discrimination and accountability standards as the public school system,” said Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “Our flawed school funding formula already makes our neighborhood schools do more with less. This bill would make the problem worse by taking already limited funds away from the public school system and handing over funds to religious and private schools without assuring parents that those schools will adequately serve their children.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin has had a long-held position against the school voucher or Milwaukee Parental Choice program because it is a failed scheme that is a misuse of tax dollars and doesn’t advance Wisconsin toward ensuring equal and adequate education for all students. In fact, the ACLU of Wisconsin partnered with Disability Rights Wisconsin last year to file a federal disability discrimination claim against the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program because of systemic discrimination against students with disabilities who weren’t adequately supported or who were outright rejected by voucher-dependent schools.

Other flaws in this bill include weak or non-existent requirements for these schools to regularly review a student’s Individualized Education Plan or even provide certified teachers or services. Religious and Private schools make their own assessments about what defines special education and parents have fewer rights and remedies if their child does not receive adequate services. The per-pupil amount of the voucher is capped, but the tuition of the school that receives the voucher is not. This will lend to more systemic discrimination when parents who have the most resources use tax vouchers, while low-income families with children who have more expensive accommodation needs must choose between giving up services or staying at their neighborhood school.

All students have an equal right to schools that adequately serve their educational needs. However, this bill is structured in a way that will weaken the adequacy of public schools while at the same time giving a greater share of monetary support to religious and private schools that do not have the same standards of accountability. Expanding the voucher scheme either through this flawed disability scholarship plan or to allow for vouchers in school districts beyond Milwaukee or Racine would not provide meaningful or effective education reform in Wisconsin.

Read the ACLU of Wisconsin’s letter to the state Assembly online: 20120305 AB 110 opposition letter to Assembly

South Milwaukee Lake Bluff Apartments – Final Chapter in Housing Discrimination Challenge Settled

27 Jun

Fair housing advocates announced the settlement of a long-running court challenge to protect the Lake Bluff Apartments, an integrated, affordable and accessible development in South Milwaukee. After a 2009 jury verdict found that tearing down Lake Bluff would have a discriminatory effect in violation of the Fair Housing Act, and after nearly two years of subsequent negotiations, Lake Bluff will remain a diverse and accessible place to live.

The tenants’ counsel issued the following statement about the settlement: “Legal Action of Wisconsin, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, who represented tenants at Lake Bluff Apartments, applaud the City of South Milwaukee for resolving this case in a way that promotes fair housing and integration. The City negotiated this settlement in good faith. We are satisfied that with the settlement, which allows our clients to remain in diverse, affordable and accessible housing in South Milwaukee, the City has fully complied with its obligations under the Fair Housing Act not to discriminate in housing and with its obligations to affirmatively further fair housing.”

“We’re happy that the residents of Lake Bluff will be able to stay in their homes,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Legal Director Larry Dupuis. “Finding affordable and accessible housing during an economic downswing hits people with disabilities and limited incomes the hardest. At the same time, the verdict and settlement in this case demonstrate that cities cannot afford to deny affordable, diverse housing. The results of this lawsuit will ensure that the buildings will stay up and tenants will no longer face the prospect of housing discrimination.”

The Lake Bluff tenants were represented by Dupuis, ACLU of Wisconsin Senior Staff Attorney Karyn Rotker, Legal Aid Society’s litigation director Peter Koneazny, and Legal Action Staff Attorney Mark Silverman. You can download the official statement online or read the combined press release on the ACLU of Wisconsin website.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is a non-profit civil liberties and civil rights organization working to protect the rights of Wisconsinites. For more on the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and Foundation of Wisconsin, visit our webpage. You can also get news and opinion on civil liberties in Wisconsin on our Cap City Liberty blog. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at ACLUMadison and ACLUofWisconsin.

Established in 1968, Legal Action of Wisconsin is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal services in 39 southern Wisconsin counties. Legal Action serves low-income, elderly and other clients through six offices statewide. More information is available at http://www.legalaction.org

The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee is one of America’s oldest, public-interest law firms and was founded in 1916 with a unique charter “to do all things necessary for the prevention of injustice.” Each year the Society provides free legal services to 8,000 of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents. More information is available at http://www.lasmilwaukee.com.

Voucher Schools Have Created a Separate, Unequal System

20 Jun

Private voucher schools are failing Milwaukee children with disabilities. When these voucher schools ignore their obligations to educate and accommodate children with disabilities, they force Milwaukee Public Schools to pick up the slack – while giving MPS fewer resources to do so. Voucher schools’ large-scale exclusion of children with disabilities has led to a segregated environment with a disproportionate share of children with disabilities attending MPS.

Indeed, if the state Legislature and governor have their way and expand the voucher program, the separation and exclusion of children with disabilities will only get worse.

That is why civil rights groups have filed the first systemic disability discrimination claim against a voucher program, at a time when well-financed pro-voucher lobbies are pumping money into voucher expansion efforts across the nation. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Disability Rights Wisconsin have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the voucher program and to shut down expansion as long as exclusion and segregation remain.

The ACLU and DRW have requested a federal investigation because of families like our clients. K.S., for example, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but whose doctor has not prescribed medication, was told he would not be admitted to one voucher school unless his mother medicated him anyway. His brother, S.E., who needs speech therapy services, was discouraged from even applying to a voucher school and as of the time the complaint was filed had not been admitted – even though he applied in January.

Another voucher school expelled B.J. after she had an argument with another child and without the reasonable accommodations MPS would have to give her if she was in school there. The voucher school expulsion forced her back to MPS, which, of course, must accept and educate her. These are just examples of the children that the voucher schools will not serve – not the only ones.

Separate is not equal. But separate is exactly what is occurring in Milwaukee: Voucher schools educate about 20% of Milwaukee students, but a mere 1.6% of voucher students receive services due to disabilities. That compares to the more than 19.2% of MPS students who receive special education services. If the voucher program expands, it will take more non-disabled children and the segregation of children with disabilities in MPS will inevitably increase.

Voucher supporters claim that they really serve a greater number of children with learning disabilities, but they have no proven data to support their arguments. Besides, their own numbers say they are only serving half as many children with disabilities as MPS.

Voucher supporters also talk only about serving children with learning disabilities. Meanwhile, MPS serves children with a wide range of disabilities – such as deafness, autism, cognitive delays and mental illness, as well as profoundly disabled children whose expenses the district also must absorb.

The vouchers were sold as a better alternative for all of Milwaukee’s families. But the truth is that even though they do not serve students with disabilities, voucher schools are failing Milwaukee children. Testing data released this year shows that overall MPS performs better than voucher schools.

Realizing they are losing the argument on quality, voucher supporters now try to emphasize that they educate cheaply. But the voucher schools do not just get state and local tax dollars. In fact, one of the reasons we are asking for an investigation is that the voucher schools receive millions of dollars a year in federal money and services. The receipt of federal money obligates the private schools to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

This failure of voucher schools to serve children with disabilities has led to the segregation of children with disabilities within MPS, while reducing resources the public school system needs to educate all students. That’s a separate – and unequal – system that cannot continue, let alone expand, in its current discriminatory form.
Courtney Bowie is senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program; Karyn Rotker is senior staff attorney, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin; and Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick is managing attorney, Disability Rights Wisconsin.

This editorial was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Saturday, June 18 2011A counter-opinion editorial was also published from School Choice Wisconsin which paints the federal complaint as an attack on the voucher program, but fails to adequately address the trend of increasing segregation of students with disabilities in public schools in Milwaukee which prompted the request for a federal investigation.

Milwaukee Voucher Schools Discriminate Against Students with Disabilities, Allege ACLU, Disability Rights WI: Federal Investigation Requested Today

7 Jun

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division today, charging discriminatory practices in Milwaukee’s private voucher schools have led to an egregious segregation of students with disabilities. The complaint was filed against the State of Wisconsin, its Department of Public Instruction and two voucher schools. The groups say that Wisconsin has failed to hold taxpayer-funded private voucher schools accountable for serving children with disabilities, and has created a program that segregates and isolates children with disabilities.

“Twenty years of offering vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee have demonstrated that children with disabilities are not welcome in Milwaukee’s private schools,” said Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Even worse is when these voucher schools occasionally accept children with disabilities, take their voucher funds, and then expel them without recourse leaving the family no other option than to return to Milwaukee Public Schools. In fact our complaint includes one family whose children with disabilities were not admitted to a voucher school, and another whose disabled child was kicked out of a voucher school and sent back to the public school system.”

“This failure of voucher schools to serve children with disabilities has led to the segregation of children with disabilities within Milwaukee Public Schools, while reducing resources the public school system needs to educate all students,” added Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

“Right now only about 1.6% of voucher students have disabilities, while 19.5% of Milwaukee Public School students do,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Increasing the size of the voucher program – as the state intends to do – will only lead to even more discrimination and more segregation of children with disabilities. We hope DOJ will step in to stop that from occurring.”

Read more on the national ACLU website. This story also received coverage in the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as well as the Huffington Post, WUWM-FM, WORT-FM‘s In Our Backyard and the 8 O’clock Buzz, Disability Scoop, The American Independent and Education Week.

Federal Report Underscores Need for Fair Housing Plans, ACLU of Wisconsin Agrees

19 Oct

On October 15th, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its report on Housing and Community Grants. The GAO found – and put as the main conclusion on the title page of the report – that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “Needs to Enhance Its Requirements and Oversight of Jurisdictions’ Fair Housing Plans.” Fair housing advocates in Wisconsin agree.

“For years, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and other groups have worked to ensure there is fair and open housing throughout our region,” stated Bill Tisdale, MMFHC’s CEO. “This report shows that we also need HUD to step up and make sure that county and local governments are doing their part.”

“Federal law is very clear that if a local government gets money from HUD for things like the Community Development Block Grant or HOME program, it has to analyze the impediments to fair housing in that community,” noted Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, which also works on fair housing issues. “And beyond that, it has to take actions to try to reduce those barriers. This isn’t just responding to complaints of discrimination – it’s taking active steps to create a more inclusive community.”

Mr. Tisdale added that “impediments to fair housing” are far broader than just overt expressions of discrimination. “For example, if people in protected groups – like people of color and persons with disabilities – are more likely to need affordable housing and a community’s laws or policies prevent that housing from being built, this is clearly a fair housing impediment. In fact, the GAO report shows it is one of the most common impediments to fair housing around the country – and that is certainly true in Wisconsin.”

“We hope this report will be just a first step for HUD to make sure that local governments are complying with the law,” added Attorney Rotker. “And we also hope that the governments themselves will start taking these requirements seriously.”

The response by the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council are available on the ACLU of Wisconsin’s website.