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Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Bill Offering Vouchers To Disabled Passes in Fla.

Bill Offering Vouchers To Disabled Passes in Fla.

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As Florida officials fight to save the nation's only statewide voucher program, Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign a bill this month that would broaden the program by letting students with disabilities transfer to private schools if their public schools fail to meet their needs.

When the state's plan for offering publicly financed tuition vouchers to students at failing public schools became law last June, a smaller trial was also approved for students with special needs in Sarasota County. Since then, two disabled students have taken advantage of the pilot program.

The bill passed by lawmakers this month would expand that trial program statewide. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. John McKay, a Republican, would give vouchers for private and religious school costs to parents who could show that their children had failed to reach specified educational goals for two consecutive years in the public school system. Those goals are laid out in disabled students' individual education plans.

In March, the failing-schools portion of the 1999 voucher law was declared unconstitutional by a state judge—a ruling the state is appealing. That program so far has given tuition aid to 53 pupils from two Pensacola elementary schools. ("Voucher Plan Struck Down in Fla. Court," March 22, 2000.)

But the concept of vouchers for students with disabilities escaped the court's review unchallenged. That prompted Republican legislators to broaden the program's reach to the 350,000 students in the state who have learning disabilities, mental or physical handicaps, and other exceptional needs.

"The plaintiffs did not challenge the constitutionality of the Sarasota pilot program, so the judge could not possibly have found it unconstitutional," said Matthew Berry, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that is helping represent the state in the voucher case.

That doesn't mean an expansion of the program wouldn't invite new legal challenges from voucher opponents, however.

"We still challenge the whole concept of voucher programs in general, and we think any expansion of this program is a mistake," said David Clark, a spokesman for Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "I believe the courts will agree that this, too, is unconstitutional."

Another union official said the teachers' group was "exploring legal remedies on this issue," but would not say whether it planned to file a new lawsuit.

Empowering Parents

About 1,300 students with disabilities are enrolled in private, nonresidential institutions in Florida at a cost of roughly $15 million to taxpayers annually, state officials said. But school districts, not parents, decide whether to transfer such students out of the public schools.

"This is not expanding in any real sense the voucher program that is being challenged in court right now," added Patrick Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice. "The real difference is parents [of disabled students] will be able to do what school districts have been able to do for 20 years."

Federal law requires that parents be part of the decisionmaking process. Many critics of the current system say, however, that families unhappy with the services provided by public schools too often must wage costly and frustrating legal battles to move their children to institutions that better meet their needs.

"In order for parents to get their kids into private schools, they have to fight the public school system," said Sherry L. Kolbe, the executive director and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Association of Private Schools for Exceptional Children.

Under the new Florida legislation, a voucher for such students could be worth as much as $25,000, state officials say, depending on the severity of a child's disability. The purpose of the bill, Mr. McKay said, is to empower parents who find themselves battling districts that have a financial interest in keeping disabled children enrolled in their schools.

"Having a child with disabilities myself, I know how frustrating that process can be," he said. "I didn't feel my daughter was being served by the public school district, so I moved her to a private facility at my expense. It's discriminating and unfair for only folks with means to be able to do that."

In the program's first year, vouchers could be given to only 5 percent of the disabled students in each district. The proportion would rise to 10 percent the second year and 20 percent the third year. From that point on, there would be no cap.

The proposal before Gov. Bush, a Republican, is opposed by the Florida School Boards Association, as well as the state's two teachers' unions.

Those opponents argue that Sen. McKay's plan, like its failing-schools counterpart, would sap resources from public schools and violate a constitutional requirement for the state to provide a high-quality system of free public schools. That requirement was the basis of the March ruling against vouchers.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 22

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