Wisconsin lawsuit seeks to help special needs students use open enrollment

P.F.’s parents just want the best possible education for him.

Dissatisfied with their local school district, P.F.’s parent took advantage of Wisconsin’s Open Enrollment Law and applied to enroll him in the Muskego-Norway School District.

P.F. was rejected.

Why? Because P.F. is disabled and even though Muskego-Norway decided to accept 55 students from other districts through open enrollment, the district also decided to accept no students with disabilities.

Setting a separate quota for accepting disabled students—and even setting the number at zero—is allowed by the Open Enrollment Law, but according to a lawsuit filed this week that doesn’t make it legal.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is suing the Department Public Instruction, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and three school districts on behalf of P.F. and two other disabled students who were rejected when they applied to changed school districts.

Because the students are minors, they and their families are only referred to by their initials in the lawsuit.

“There’s an additional set of limitations imposed on families of children with special needs that’s interfering with their ability to exercise the freedom of choice available to everybody else,” WILL President Rick Esenberg told Watchdog.

The lawsuit contends those limitations violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

MAKING SURE OPEN ENROLLMENT IS OPEN TO ALL: A new lawsuit seeks help special needs student access Wisconsin’s open enrollment program.

In addition to being able to set separate quotas for disabled students, school districts are allowed to reject disabled students if a district claims accepting a student would create an “undue financial burden.”

“There should never be any undue financial burden the way the system works,” Esenberg explained.

Any additional cost incurred by a district accepting a special needs student is supposed to paid by the district the student transferred from.

Nevertheless, 42 percent of special needs students who applied to change districts through open enrollment were rejected during the 2012-13 school year. The most common reason given by districts was “undue financial burden.”

“We’d like to come to a resolution where these families have the same freedoms that everyone else has to try to move their children to a public school will better serve their needs,” Essenberg said.

Before joining the lawsuit, P.F.’s family had started on a different approach to getting P.F. into a better school.

The family bought a lot in a better school district and P.F.’s father had started building the family a new house.

“Families should have to go to extremes to get a good education for their child,” Essenberg said.

Neither DPI, Superintendent Evers nor the school districts have commented on the lawsuit yet.

Contact Paul Brennan at pbrennan@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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