Advocates for disabled file voucher complaint – Denver Post

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

By Karen Augé

The list of groups fighting Douglas County schools’ voucher program grew by one Monday.

The nonprofit Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People has filed a federal complaint charging that the voucher program discriminates against students with disabilities.

The complaint doesn’t name a specific family or child that has been discriminated against.

But as the federally designated advocate for the state’s disabled and elderly population, “we have an obligation to protect the rights of adults and children with disabilities,” said Randy Chapman, the center’s director of legal services.

The U.S. Department of Justice has notified the Legal Center that it received the complaint and will investigate.

If the department finds the complaint has merit, it can negotiate a remedy with the school district, Chapman said.

In March, the Douglas County school board voted to launch a pilot program that would allow up to 500 current public-school students to receive around $4,500 in public money to attend private schools.

The district hopes to have the program, which would be the first of its kind in Colorado, operating when school starts in August.

In June, two groups filed lawsuits in Denver District Court, claiming the voucher program violates the Constitution’s doctrine of separation of church and state. The court has combined the two suits and will hear them together. Many of the schools Douglas County has contracted with for the voucher program are religious in nature.

In its complaint, the Legal Center alleges that only one of the private schools Douglas County has contracted with accepts students with disabilities. That school is Humanex Academy, Chapman said.

Douglas County schools spokesman Randy Barber said roughly 33 students with special needs are participating in the program.

Barber said many of them plan to attend Humanex, a school that specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities.

Federal law requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education.” The law does not apply to private schools.

The complaint charges that Douglas County violates that provision, as well as parts of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Barber said the district did not specifically seek out schools that offer special-education programs for students with disabilities or other special needs, but it didn’t exclude them, either.

“We are open to any school that wants to participate,” he said. “This is really about parent choice.”

Barber said that parents of children with disabilities are free to choose a private school through the voucher program. However, he said, the district has told parents that it will not provide students getting vouchers with Individualized Education Programs as it must do for students attending its public schools.

That does not leave Douglas County parents of children with special needs out in the cold, Barber said. “We’ve got a lot of great options here” within the district, he said.

To Chapman, that isn’t good enough.

The Legal Center complaint quotes several of the private schools’ applications to be included in Douglas County’s voucher program.

Evangelical Christian Academy, for example, states it is “unable to accommodate students with Individualized Education Plans.”

Valor Christian High School said: “We do not have a special-education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant needs.”

That’s fine for private schools, Chapman said. But when schools accept public money, which Douglas County plans to distribute through what it will call a charter school, it becomes a problem.

“If we believe in choice and that it’s a good thing for families, then it’s good for all families,” he said.