Vouchers, MPS, and Special Needs Pupils

A strange chapter in the never-ending battle over the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) appears to have ended. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the federal investigation into the treatment of MPCP students with disabilities is over. It does not look like much came of it. That does not surprise me. I do not claim to be a lawyer, but I always thought the MPCP law regarding special needs pupils was pretty straightforward:

  • Schools cannot screen for or reject students based on their special needs status; and
  • Schools were not required to supply services for students with special needs.

In my many years of working with voucher schools I never saw anything that led me to believe schools were violating the law in regards to special needs pupils. Debate over whether the law overseeing voucher schools is flawed is fair-game for policy makers and interest groups, but a legal investigation is not a policy debate. As for the accusations that the investigation was politically motivated…I have no idea.   If there is evidence of that I am sure it will come to light in time.

The lack of legal violations does not mean, however, that the concentration of special needs pupils is the same in public schools and the MPCP. The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) serve a larger percentage of special needs pupils than the MPCP. Though there are competing claims about the actual percentage of special needs pupils in the MPCP, there is no doubt MPS has a substantially higher percentage of special needs pupils. I also suspect the severity of needs is greater in MPS. Why? MPCP schools are not equipped to handle the same scope of needs as MPS. Part of the reason is funding, part of the reason is the difference between a school system and a system of schools, and part of the reason is a lack of facilities.

The question to consider is whether the differences between MPS and the MPCP in regards to special needs are problematic. I say yes, but only because it is another byproduct of Milwaukee’s fragmented approach to publicly-funded education. For example, I do not think many are overly concerned that certain MPS schools specialize in services for certain students. That is logical. If all publicly funded schools in Milwaukee were part of some common governance structure, the individual differences in services between MPS and MPCP schools would be no different than the differences within MPS. But alas, because Milwaukee schools are funded and regulated differently, and because the education debate in Milwaukee is so adversarial, the issue of special needs pupils is just another fault-line.

So I am happy that the investigation of MPCP schools did not find evidence of systematic discrimination of special needs pupils. But I wonder…could all the energy that went into that investigation (and the other education battles in Milwaukee) been directed toward something that actually improved services for Milwaukee pupils?

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