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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

Madison School District’s No Vote for Charter School Is a Vote Against Sex-Segregation

20 Dec

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said that Monday night’s decision by the board of the Madison Metropolitan School District marked a rejection of sex-segregation in publicly funded schools. Sex-segregation isn’t a solution to the racial achievement gap.

From the beginning, the ACLU of Wisconsin has made it clear that sex-segregation is inherently discriminatory. Fixing the racial achievement gap in Madison and across the state is going to take an effort that is larger than one charter school. It is going to take a district-wide commitment to expanding strategies that work and that don’t rely on unproven gimmicks like separating boys and girls.

The most recent debate over whether or not the Urban League’s charter school plan would include using unionized staff was important. However we cannot let the controversy over instrumentality obscure the fact that there were many unanswered questions even after the district’s final analysis. The analysis suggested that the legality of sex-segregation in the charter plan would have to be scrutinized by attorneys and essentially deferred the issue to future decision-makers. Even in the shadow of our district’s problems with race, we cannot let gender equality be taken lightly.

Tonight’s decision reflected the deep concerns of some school officials and the state Department of Public instruction that sex-segregation would create too great a risk for discrimination and legal action.

The ACLU of Wisconsin will continue its efforts to work for racial justice in our state’s public education system. It will also investigate reports of sex-segregated public schools in other areas of Wisconsin that came to the organization’s attention through the course of the public debate over the Madison Prep proposal.

Read the ACLU of Wisconsin’s op-ed from Monday online. We wrote, “much of the recent debate leading up to Monday night’s School Board vote on the proposed Madison Preparatory Academy has focused on concerns about the school’s oversight and use of non-union staff. While those issues are certainly serious, equally troubling is the academy’s plan to separate students on the basis of sex. From both an educational and legal standpoint, segregating our kids by sex would be an egregious error that would further add insult to injury.”

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Wisconsin Senators Move to Turn Back the Clock on Sex Ed

18 Oct

In a fast-moving piece of legislation, Senators are using Governor Walker’s special session on job creation to repeal the progress made after the passage of the 2009 Healthy Youth Act. The Healthy Youth Act raised the state standards for public school human growth and development instruction.

We just read in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that teen pregnancy rates have been declining since 2009,” said Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Strategist for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “This bill is so poorly timed. Not only does this piece of legislation not create a single job in our state, it threatens to move us backwards in building up the next generation of informed, healthy youth. We all know teens need information to make healthy and responsible decisions about sex. Parents and youth should be outraged at this legislative sabotage.”

This bill removes information on the health benefits of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections as well as a requirement for schools to identify support for victims of sexual assault. This bill requires schools to revert back to the proven failure of abstinence-until-marriage types of instruction. This bill even redefines what “medically accurate” and “age appropriate” means.

The comprehensive sexuality education model is based on evidence that when teens participate in school and community programs that stress both the importance of waiting to have sex while providing accurate, age-appropriate, medically accurate and complete information about the use of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, teens delay sex and reduce sexual risk-taking.

For all young people, but especially those who do not receive medically accurate information from their parents, church or peers, our public schools are the best places to give them nondiscriminatory facts about how to stay healthy and make responsible choices. Repealing the Health Youth Act would be a regressive move for Wisconsin’s students and public health.

Senate Bill 237 will get a hearing in the Senate Committee on Education Wednesday, October 19 at noon in room 201 SE in the Capitol. You can read ACLU of Wisconsin live tweets of the hearing @ACLUMadison.

Call your state legislators and tell them to keep comprehensive sex ed for Wisconsin students. In Madison: 266-9960; Toll-free: 1-800-362-9472

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.

Milwaukee’s School Voucher Scheme Doesn’t Work – Legislators Should Reject AB 92 and AB 94

5 May

Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin called upon the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to reject two bills that will waste tax dollars on the failed Milwaukee school voucher program. In a letter to JFC co-chairs Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Robin Vos, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty put the proposals in the context of forthcoming deep cuts in school aids from the state to local school districts, including Milwaukee. The letter is available online.

Regarding Assembly Bill 92 (PDF), which would lift the program enrollment cap and allow private schools anywhere in Milwaukee County to choose to participate, Ahmuty wrote “it is unconscionable for you to allow this failed program to waste even more taxpayer dollars.”

Assembly Bill 94 (PDF) makes several cosmetic changes to financial rules affecting the program. On a change in auditing standards, Ahmuty wrote, “It is unclear whether or not this proposal would be better than DPI’s current standards; much less satisfy the public’s legitimate interest in knowing that tax dollars are being used as the recipients claim.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin maintains that ideology, not sound educational practice, is behind school vouchers in Wisconsin and other states. In the face of severe cuts in spending on education, it asks why are vouchers growing at the expense of public schools which do a better job of educating our children?

The Governor’s Fantastic Math for Public School (De)funding

17 Mar

Governor Walker is doing some fantastic math these days. And our public schools are going to suffer for it.

The Governor claimed in a media conference, which was closed to the public yesterday, that projected revenue losses for local public school districts could be made up in most cases from employee benefit concessions. In reaction, educators immediately pointed out to the media that his figures are misleading because they fail to take into account a variety of factors, including inflation, existing contractual obligations, and disparities in wealth among districts.

“The Governor’s privatization ideology appears to have blinded him to the stark realities Wisconsin school children will face if a budget is passed with a $834 million cut in school aids over the course of the biennium,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty. “Walker’s de-funding scheme coupled with a costly and wasteful expansion of the failed private school voucher program in Milwaukee and independent charter schools statewide will privatize public education in Wisconsin.

“The failed privatization effort in Milwaukee has reduced resources for public schools statewide. Even though the private schools in the Milwaukee have resisted meaningful accountability and evaluation, it is clear that they do not, in most cases, achieve better outcomes for students than public schools.”

Wisconsin is not the only state where public schools are facing privatization. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s recently released budget also includes deep cuts and an expansion of vouchers. It appears that national proponents of privatizing public education have found more than one receptive Governor to defund public schools.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin calls on Governor Walker to stop serving national special interests and listen to the people of Wisconsin who are served by strong public schools,” said Ahmuty. “The ACLU of Wisconsin remains open to working with legislative leaders to bring sanity into efforts to reform education funding.”

Our state budget must not be balanced by shortchanging public school children and busting teachers’ unions. If public schools keep getting defunded, maybe the only math lessons our kids will be learning will be as fantastic as the Governor’s budget calculations.

Education Cuts: Joint Finance Could Bring Reason to Governor’s Budget

4 Mar

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is open to working with members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to restore reason to Governor Walker’s budget proposals for K-12 public education in Wisconsin. The Governor is recommending slashing equalization and categorical aids to school districts rather than trying to fix a school funding formula that many have regarded as broken for years.

Christopher Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin called the proposed cuts, “‘penny wise pound foolish.’ You can’t put our children’s education on hold. These proposals will widen the already shocking gap between the education children receive in poor districts versus well-off districts.

“If the Governor and his ideological allies intend to create an underclass of Wisconsinites who will have less of a chance to become productive citizens, his budget proposals will move our families toward that outcome.

“In the weeks ahead the ACLU of Wisconsin will be working with parents, students, school board leaders and educators to show legislators that the Governor’s proposals will fail under-served children in all parts of our state,” Ahmuty concluded.

For more on education cuts in the state budget, read this Wisconsin State Journal article about increased funding for private schools and decreased funding and resources for public schools.

Youth Social Justice Forum Gets Milwaukee Youth Talking about Equality and Free Speech

16 Nov

On Thursday November 4th, 2010, over 300 high school students came together at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee Student Union for the 11th Annual Youth Social Justice Forum.

The crowd of students, teachers and volunteers gather for the day

Students learn how to build puppets from scratch to turn their ideas into 3-D images

With the assistance of almost 80 volunteers from all over the city, including the 2010-2011 class from Public Allies Milwaukee, students actively participated in educational workshops that covered topics from “Creating Audio PSAs” for radio broadcast to “Political Cartooning and Art.” The workshops were presented by volunteers and partners from across the region.

Art Night Books artist Devin Trudell shares political cartoons

In its eleventh year of operation, the Youth Social Justice Forum has evolved from a political awareness event for Milwaukee-area youth to a premiere Social Justice Forum for education and activism for southeastern Wisconsin. The Youth Social Justice Forum increases awareness about issues that directly affect young people, offers hands-on workshops that teach youth real skills to help them raise their voices, provides experiential learning that fosters creative and collaborative thinking, and brings people together to bridge the gap between different racial and economic backgrounds.

Political expression in t-shirt form is ripped from the headlines and incorporated into a workshop

The First Amendment comes alive when students have hands-on lessons about free speech and art

In addition to the workshops, those in attendance also had the opportunity to observe a debate concerning the topic of immigration reform and then cast a ballot to vote on the debated measure using real ballots and counting machines.

City of Milwaukee ballots and tabulators give students the experience of voting

True Skool speakers discussed the history of urban art

This event would not have been a success without the participation and collaboration of many talented volunteers and facilitators. Supporting organizations and businesses include: 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, Milwaukee Public Theatre, Public Allies Milwaukee, RedLine Milwaukee, True Skool, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Urban Underground and the ACLU of Wisconsin staff and friends. The countless hours spent during preparation for this event resulted in a fantastic outcome.

Public Allies Milwaukee volunteers helped the day run smoothly

Photos taken by ACLU of Wisconsin staff member Marion Ecks

View more pictures from the event on the ACLU Student Alliance HQ Facebook photo gallery
Bring the Youth Social Justice Forum or other youth rights workshops to your students or community group! For more information on next year’s event or to get news and information about our educational work with young people, sign up for updates or contact our Youth and Program Department at (414) 272-4032 x 23. Get involved!

Public Education Needs a Better Funding Solution to Help Disparities Problem

15 Nov

This month, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shared their new ideas on restructuring of the state’s school funding formula. For too long our state has relied on a school funding plan that is tied to property taxes which gives disproportionate funding to schools in wealthy areas. Wisconsin schools Superintendent Tony Evers’s “Fair Funding for our Future” proposal would move schools toward considering student need, not property wealth, in allocating state aid.

“We agree with Superintendent Evers that our state funding formulas need to be structured to ensure greater support for children with greater needs,” stated ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “Shifting away from the school levy tax credits – which benefit higher-wealth households more than children in need – is a start.

“However, in moving forward with this proposal, we must keep in mind that it’s not only children in poverty who have additional needs,” Ahmuty added. “We need to ensure that the state is also addressing the concerns over Wisconsin’s significant racial disparities in graduation rates throughout the state.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin believes that racial disparities in graduation rates can no longer be ignored. We support a comprehensive approach that uses limited resources in the most effective way to ensure all children across Wisconsin have the opportunity to succeed,” Ahmuty concluded.

Media reports say that at first glance, the proposal could have support from newly elected Republican leadership.

Race-Based Mascots Ban Gets State Senate Hearing

13 Jan

The Wisconsin Senate Education Committee is about to start their hearing today on a bill that would improve the discrimination complaint process communities can have to challenge the use of race-based mascots. The ACLU of Wisconsin will be there to submit testimony on why we oppose the use of race-based logos, mascots and nicknames in public schools. We will also be tweeting live from the hearing: follow the updates at ACLUMadison on

We’ve blogged before about the race-based mascot bill when it got a hearing in the state Assembly committee last year. Nearly 40 public school districts across Wisconsin continue to use logos for their sports teams that are based on race or ethnicity. Nicknames, like Chiefs or Chieftains, Indians, Red Raiders, Redman, and Warhawks, and school-approved mascots and logos have been a common feature at sporting and pep events attended by generations of enthusiastic students. However, the use of discriminatory mascots should be challenged.
The ACLU of Wisconsin points out that:

1. All public schools in Wisconsin are required to provide all students with an adequate, nondiscriminatory education. Race-based nicknames, logos and mascots are inherently discriminatory and shouldn’t be endorsed by a public school.

2. There should be a fair and adequate process for the Department of Public Instruction to review complaints from community members about race-based mascots. As the use of race-based mascots is government speech (not individual speech), the First Amendment does not apply. The government is responsible for addressing discriminatory practices such as the use of race-based mascots and the Department of Public Instruction is the appropriate agency to mediate local conflict resolution.

3. Having schools with mascots that are not based in racial or ethnic stereotypes will not only end this particular discriminatory practice, but will be a positive step toward equality and an embrace of good sportsmanship, respect for others and fair play.

For these reasons the ACLU of Wisconsin supports SB 25 on race-based nicknames, mascots and logos and encourages the Senate Education Committee to support this bill. Ending the use of race-based mascots won’t end all discrimination in our public schools, but it is an important step forward.

You can read the bill online (SB 25).

No to Mayoral Takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools – Hearing Today

5 Jan

We’ve blogged before on why the Milwaukee Mayor should not take over the Milwaukee Public Schools. Today a hearing is being held at the MPS headquarters to get public comment on this issue and ACLU supporters will be there to voice their concerns.

You can follow the live Twitter posts from the ACLU. Follow ACLUofWisconsin on Twitter today.

According to ACLU Executive Director Chris Ahmuty, the proposal to give MPS governance to the mayor is just another scheme that won’t remedy Wisconsin’s failure to provide an adequate education to far too many of Milwaukee’s children.

Rather than spending time and effort to push through a controversial takeover program, the governor, mayor and state legislators need to comply with the state Constitutional obligation to ensure that all Milwaukee children have the opportunity to obtain a meaningful, adequate education.

Persons who are genuinely concerned about student performance need to evaluate what programs and services help students succeed, and what special programs and services are needed for children living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, limited English proficient children, and children with disabilities – and then ensure that MPS has the resources to implement those programs.

They also must address the reality that thousands of Milwaukee children attend taxpayer-supported private voucher schools – most of which perform no better than MPS. Yet neither the takeover proposal nor any other plan has been offered to improve education for those 21,000 Milwaukee children.

The primary constitutional responsibility for the education of Milwaukee’s children rests with the State of Wisconsin. The state needs to put adequate resources into the public school system to provide the educational services and supports those children need. It needs to ensure that the per-pupil funding for Milwaukee Public Schools students is at least comparable to that of suburban districts. It needs to phase out voucher and charter schools that are not performing, and impose the same accountability requirements on any schools that remain. Those are the reforms that will help Milwaukee students succeed.

Why the Milwaukee Mayor should not take over MPS

1 Oct

There is currently a controversy brewing in Milwaukee where it has been proposed that there should be a mayoral takeover of the city’s public schools. Milwaukee students need and deserve safety and equality in their schools. But changing the governance of Milwaukee Public Schools will not remedy Wisconsin’s failure to provide an adequate education to far too many of Milwaukee’s children.

A mayoral takeover will not narrow the racial achievement gap, which should deeply trouble all Wisconsinites. Schemes such as mayoral control and school vouchers that focus on control rather than education in the classroom are bound to fail our children.

Rather than spending time and effort to push through a controversial takeover program that will not provide resources for programs that work, the governor, mayor and state legislators need to ensure that all Milwaukee children have the opportunity to obtain a meaningful, adequate education.

Those genuinely concerned about student performance need to evaluate what programs and services – such as smaller class sizes – help students succeed. They must look at researched-based findings on what programs and services best educate students with disabilities, English language learners, and low income students. In light of the racial achievement gaps in our community, they must look at whether specific programs are needed to support children of color. Then they must determine what these programs cost, and how those programs will be fairly and adequately funded. That is the kind of adequate education that all Milwaukee students deserve – but are too often denied.

Moreover, efforts to improve the education of Milwaukee children must address the needs of all students who attend taxpayer-supported schools, not just those who attend schools operated by MPS. Approximately 1/5 of Milwaukee students attend private voucher schools at taxpayers’ expense – and most of those schools perform no better than MPS, and in some cases fall short of MPS performance. Yet neither the takeover proposal nor any other plan that has been offered seek to improve education for those 20,000 Milwaukee children.

Nor does the takeover plan deal with the negative impacts of voucher turnover on MPS schools. As a recent audit shows, each year far more students leave voucher schools forMPS than transfer from MPS to voucher schools. Some voucher schools close during or after the school year, for reasons ranging from poor physical conditions to financial mismanagement. Voucher schools can and do expel students who present behavioral and other challenges. And research has also shown that voucher schools educate a far smaller percentage of students with disabilities and English language learners than MPS – requiring MPS to divert a far greater percentage of its resources to educate these children.

The poor outcomes of voucher schools are a clear indication that quick fixes will not meet the educational needs of Milwaukee children. Vouchers were sold as a free market, competitive model that would succeed without regulation, oversight or public disclosure – but overall, the system has failed and should be phased out, starting with those voucher schools that are underperforming MPS.

Nor should there be a headlong rush for other quick fixes. Neighborhood schools, for example, were sold – and funded – as a way to provide a better education to Milwaukee children, and they too have failed. There is no evidence that yet another quick fix – a mayoral takeover of the public schools – will have any more success in meeting students’ needs.

The ACLU of Wisconsin believes the primary constitutional responsibility for the education of Milwaukee’s children rests with the State of Wisconsin. The state needs to put adequate resources into the public school system to provide the educational services and supports those children need – including adequate supports for children living in poverty, children with disabilities, English language learners, and other special needs children. It needs to ensure that the per-pupil funding for Milwaukee Public Schools students is at least comparable to that of suburban districts. Those are the reforms that will help Milwaukee students succeed.