ADA Compliance Part of Voucher Debate

One of many issues being debated as part of proposed school voucher legislation is whether private schools that receive them should have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Advocates for those with disabilities argue that not requiring ADA compliance would be discriminatory.

But Vigo County parochial school leaders say their buildings are older and the schools could not afford to become ADA-compliant, even with taxpayer-supported vouchers.

House Bill 1003, already approved by the House and a Senate committee, is expected to go before the full Senate today and that is one of the issues likely to be debated.

Vouchers would use taxpayer money to give scholarship funds to parents who meet income guidelines if they move their children from public to private schools.

Supporters say the bill would give working-class families more education options, while opponents say the vouchers take money away from public schools and are an attack on traditional public education.

Pete Ciancone, executive director of the Wabash Valley Independent Living and Learning Center in Vigo County, says that if the private schools accepting vouchers are not required to meet ADA, “That strikes me as really, really discriminatory. … It’s a slap in the face to those with disabilities and to public schools.”

He also suggests “it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

But two parochial school principals in Terre Haute say the schools could not afford to comply with ADA.

Amy McClain, St. Patrick’s School principal, said the school has several stairwells and “it would take a number of elevators to make us handicapped accessible.” Part of the school dates back to 1925.

She agrees that ideally it should be handicapped accessible, but it would be cost-prohibitive. As legislation is currently written, she doesn’t believe vouchers would provide enough revenue to make the school ADA-compliant.

She believes voucher legislation is intended to give families an opportunity to choose where children go to school. If ADA compliance is a requirement for vouchers, “many schools couldn’t afford to do it” and it would limit a family’s choices, she said.

Sandy McBroom, director of John Paul II Catholic High School, believes vouchers would benefit the school in the sense that “students who might not otherwise be able to come would have the opportunity.”

But the building, built in 1929, is not handicapped accessible and making it ADA compliant would be “prohibitive,” she said. It does not have a ramp or elevator and it does not have handicapped-accessible bathrooms. It is located in the former Sacred Heart school building.

Under the current legislation, the vouchers would be worth about $4,500 for students who qualify for free or reduced lunches. The program would be limited to 7,500 students in its first year and 15,000 in its second year, with no caps in subsequent years.

While the Senate Education Committee removed language in the House bill that would have required private schools accepting vouchers to comply with ADA, there’s an attempt to get that requirement back into the legislation.

State Sen. Earline Rogers, a Democrat from Gary, has filed an amendment that would require schools accepting the vouchers to comply with ADA and also adhere to the state teacher evaluation requirements that would apply to public schools.

Senate Democrats also have filed amendments that would require schools accepting vouchers to have broad anti-discrimination policies that would prevent them from discriminating against students based on national origin, religion, sexual identity or sexual orientation.

State Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, a senate co-sponsor of the voucher bill, is also administrator of the Clinton Christian School, a faith-based school in Goshen.

Yoder said he supported the removal of the language that would have required private schools accepting vouchers to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yoder agreed it would be cost-prohibitive for those schools to comply with the ADA rules.

“These schools already comply with fire codes and safety standards,” Yoder said. “But many of these schools are housed in old buildings that weren’t built with accessibility in mind, so there’s a real question as to whether they could afford to strictly comply with the ADA guidelines.”

Yoder said removing the ADA language wasn’t an attempt to exclude students with disabilities. He said there were students with disabilities in private and faith-based schools across the state. “Many of the schools already make accommodations,” Yoder said.

Maureen Hayden, Tribune-Star Statehouse Bureau, contributed to this report

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