UPDATE: DPI faces lawsuit claiming open enrollment discriminates - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

DPI faces lawsuit claiming open enrollment discriminates against children with disabilities

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A conservative non-profit law group is suing the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on behalf of four children with disabilities, claiming the state's open enrollment program discriminates against them and is a violation of federal disability law.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Madison Tuesday.

The suit alleges Wisconsin's open enrollment program is unlawful, because it allows schools to create separate processes for accepting students with disabilities and those without.

Lisa Pugh is the mother of a 15 year-old daughter with autism.

"I'm an example of a parent who was able to move to a different elementary school, when I wasn't able to figure out how to navigate the concerns for my daughter," said Pugh, who is not a plaintiff in the WILL lawsuit.

Pugh is the public policy director for Disability Rights Wisconsin.  Her daughter was transferred between two schools within the same district.  She says it is much more difficult for parents trying to enroll their child in a school in a new district.

"That particular policy has been discriminatory against students with disabilities and needed desperately to be improved," said Pugh.

Pugh, who takes no position on the lawsuit, says children with disabilities are usually denied because they come with a much higher price tag than other students, costs a new district normally doesn't want to absorb.  She says they are classified as an "undue financial burden."

"Clearly you have something wrong with the system when you have roughly 50 percent of kids with special needs, who's parents want them to change schools through open enrollment, get denied either coming in or going out," said Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown).

Rep. Jagler tried to get a special needs voucher bill passed through the state legislature in January.  It would have allowed parents to take public dollars and use them to send their disabled children to private schools.  The bill failed, but Rep. Jagler says he will introduce a the bill again next year, assuming he has the votes to pass it this time. 

While he agrees with some of the conclusions reached in the lawsuit, he too chose not to take a stance on its merits.

Pugh says she does fear the lawsuit may become a distraction from what she considers the root problem: funding.  She believes DPI has a workable solution in its new two-year budget request for 2015-17.

"There will be a flat amount of $12,000 for open enrollment, which is a good average based upon existing costs, which should really be a good deal for both the receiving district and the sending district," said Pugh.

Rep. Jagler says he has a hard time trusting DPI will actually address the issue, because it has been a problem for years and they have done nothing to rectify the situation. 

State Superintendent Tony Evers refused interviews on the lawsuit, but a DPI spokesperson said the agency's budget request does provide a path to improve access to open enrollment for students with disabilities.

However, that budget request appears to be dead on arrival with the state legislature.  Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has already said it does not protect the interests of the taxpayers.

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Three families of children with disabilities are challenging Wisconsin's law that allows students to open enroll at schools outside their home district, saying it violates federal disability law.
   The families are represented by the conservative group the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. The group announced on Wednesday that it had filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Madison.
   The lawsuit alleges that Wisconsin's open enrollment program is unlawful because it allows schools to create separate processes for accepting students with disabilities and those without.
   The case was filed against state Superintendent Tony Evers, the state Department of Public Instruction and the Elkhorn, Greendale and Muskego-Norway school districts.
   Evers' spokesman John Johnson says DPI's budget proposal would improve access to open enrollment for students with disabilities.



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