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Republicans look to expand vouchers to kids with disabilities

By Lynn Hatter


Tallahassee, FL – Students with disabilities could see their school choice options grow under a proposal to expand the state's voucher program for disabled children. But as Lynn Hatter reports, opponents to the bill say the scholarship program could be jeopardized if the program expands too much.

The McKay Scholarship program gives vouchers to students with disabilities. Under the current program a student has to have a documented disability and a structured learning plan in place with a school district to receive special services. Those are called Individual Education Plans or IEP's. A proposal by Representative Michael Bileca of Miami would expand the program to students who fall under what's called a 504 students with disabilities like asthma or milder forms of autism that don't qualify for the stricter Individualized plan.

"In theory, all the teachers, faculty that the students come in contact with should have an understanding of what their 504 accommodation is, they should also make those accommodations in the classroom. But if you talk to students on a 504, especially when they reach junior high and high school and they're bouncing around to five or six teachers, they have no idea these accommodations are in place and as a result their learning suffers."

Bileca is proposing a bill that would allow those 504 students to become eligible for McKay Scholarships. He says districts don't pay as much attention to those students, because their focus may be on others with greater needs. Supporters of the proposal like fellow Republican Representative Kelli Stargel of Lakeland says the rules regarding children with disabilities aren't equitable.

"You can have two identical children, two identical situations, two identical disabilities, and one can get an IEP and another can get a 504, just because of the discretion of someone looking at those files, correct?"

But Bob Cera with the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students warns against expanding the McKay program and including 504 students. He draws a distinction between the 504 plan and the Individual Education Plan, saying the distinction was made by the legislature to limit over-identification of students with disabilities.

Furthermore, he says the McKay legislation is narrowed to a specific group of children for a reason- to prevent abuse of the system.

"It is much easier to get a 504 plan than it is to get Hospital Homebound. And while I am not here to suggest that there are parents who want a voucher under any circumstances, that indeed happened under Hospital Homebound and it became a problem that the legislature did indeed address in 2006."

Also opposing the expansion bill is the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. Attorney Ron Meyer says it's not that they oppose McKay scholarships they're worried the bill could put the program in legal jeopardy.

"That's the concern I bring to you today, is taking another 50-thousand kids who have not been screened and identified for special needs treatment is going to endanger the program. And whether its my clients or others who have a problem with wholesale expansion of vouchers, by doing this you are not helping, you are not improving the program, you are threatening it's very existence."

That's because the scholarships were created at a time when the state supreme court struck down former Governor Jeb Bush's school voucher program. The court ruled giving public funds to private schools unconstitutional. But at the same time, it cleared the McKay program, saying because the group of students was so narrow, and specific, it passed constitutional muster. The arguments made against the bill swayed some members of the House's K-though-12 Education committee. Democratic Representative Geraldine Thompson of Orlando says while she supports the McKay Scholarship program, she can't support its expansion.

"A student who has asthma is very different from a student who can't see. This bill would put them all into the same category for the purposes of expanding vouchers."

The bill passed on an 11-3 party line vote with Democrats unanimously in opposition. It has one more committee stop before heading to the House floor. A companion bill in the senate hasn't been heard in any committee.