Accounts For Disabled Students Could Lead To Clash Between House And Senate

Apr 2, 2014

Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland)
Credit Florida Senate

School choice opponents are lining up against a proposal giving students with disabilities additional funding. They say while the intent of the bill is noble, they fear it will lead to even greater segregation within Florida’s education system.

Depending on the disability, and how it has impacted a child, some students are on what are called Independent Education Plans—or IEPs. Those IEPs are usually negotiated between parents, school districts and healthcare providers to outline a student’s learning goals. And if a family feels the public school isn’t right for their child—they can opt for a McKay Scholarship and use those funds to send their kid to a private school. Some students with disabilities also qualify for Medicaid. Bottom line: There’s a lot of money associated with students with disabilities. But Lakeland Republican Senator Kelli Stargel says her proposal is for everyone.

“Whether you’re home school, private school, McKay, public school...allow these students the opportunity to access these learning accounts and to enhance the education. We’re looking at the whole child to make sure everything is in place for that child," Stargel says.

Her bill gives $18 million to fund individual spending accounts for students with disabilities, specifically those with severe disabilities like Autism and Prader-Willi Syndrome. About $1.4 million of that money would go to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to administer the program -- though there are concerns about whether the agency, with its troubled financial history, can handle that. Students could use the money to help pay tuition costs, get testing or pay for other academic needs. They could also put the dollars toward a pre-paid scholarship.

“ I don’t think it comes as a surprise for those in school districts that there are needs among the most needy that have not been met," says Tallahassee Democratic Senator Bill Montford, who’s also head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. He is supportive of steering extra funding to disabled students.

Stargel’s bill had previously excluded public school students and those on McKay scholarships, drawing concern from groups like the League of Women Voters, who believed it would have served to benefit private schools:

“We’re still in opposition to the bill, however we think the fact the strike-all amendment removed a possible incentive for parents to take their kids out of private school is a good thing," says League of Women Voters of Florida spokeswoman Jessica Lowe-Minor.

 An amendment filed by Republican Senator Aaron Bean Wednesday removed the restrictions on public school students and McKay kids from participating—something the League believes is a step in the right direction. But Lowe-Minor says it does nothing to allay other concerns her group has with the legislation.

“We’re just very concerned this kind of measure could be a camel’s nose under the tent for expanding situations at which public money is given to families to acquire education that has not been proven effective," she says.

The League and the United Faculty of Florida both oppose the bill. Adding to the concern the measure could be a proverbial “Trojan horse” leading to an even larger school voucher program is its House counterpart, which now includes an expansion of the state’s corporate tax scholarship program. A separate bill expanding that program was pulled by its Senate sponsor.

But Florida Developmental Disabilities Counsel lobbyist Michelle Hooper likes the bill and says it should address disabled students who aren’t currently eligible for Medicaid funding.

“The personal learning accounts are very exciting for children on the APD waiting list that can’t get those extra services they need to be successful, so we’re very excited about that," she says.

Bill Sponsor Stargel says she does not intend to add the corporate tax language to her bill, but notes it could be an issue as the chambers try to reconcile their bills. The proposal already has components even the groups opposed to it like, including a permanent exemption to state standardized tests for the most severely disabled students, and new pathways to earning a standard high school diploma. But it could still be a flash-point between the House and Senate, which are poised to approve two very different proposals.

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