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McKay voucher expansion clears, heads to gov

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-966321.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The Senate has agreed with the House of Representatives to expand Florida's school voucher program for students with disabilities. HB 1329 now heads to Gov Rick Scott. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, some lawmakers expressed concerned about expanding the programs to students with what they call "a temporary disease."

Republican Senator Stephen Wise of Jacksonville wants to expand the John M McKay Scholarship Program to students with a wider range of disabilities.

"The bill expands the eligibility for the John M McKay Scholarships to students who have been issued a 504 accommodation plan, however the bill excludes students who have been issued this 504 plan with a duration of 6 months or less. The bill provides that the scholarship amount for students eligible under this plan will be based on the current student cost factors generated by the student under the FEFP."

The scholarship offers vouchers to students with certain mental and physical disabilities. Those eligible for the program must apply for the program before withdrawing from public school, and have a customized learning plan in place with a school district called an Individual Education Plan, or an I-E-P.
Wise's bill would affect 3-thousand kids, but Democrats, like Democratic Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood worry it would take 13-million dollars from schools.

Wise: "We're not increasing or taking away money from education. It's no new money; it's just what the kids would get money."

Sobel: "So, actually what you're saying is that the budget stays the same, but this would be money taken out of the traditional public schools and used possibly in private or religious schools."

Wise: "It's the same kids, so, they could go to another public school if they want to."

Several lawmakers also talked about how the language regarding who SPECIFICALLY is eligible for the program is unclear, including Senator Sobel.

"It actually expands a voucher program for kids in the 504 program who possibly have asthma or some temporary-type disease, where the original McKay Scholarship was for students who had severe learning problems and could not adapt, or actually progress in the traditional public school setting. Wouldn't this weaken the Constitutionality of the program if we expand it at this time?"

And, other lawmakers, like Democrat Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, worry the bill could bring in students who don't have serious disabilities.

"I would like to know what is the criteria then because I am operating under the assumption that kids who get the McKay Scholarship have a disability and I want to know if asthma, peanut allergies, and other maladies are considered sufficient to qualify for disabled under the McKay Scholarship."

And, Senator Wise tried again to clarify his bill.

"Great question! If it affects their education and their ability to learn, the answer would be yes. Then otherwise, the answer would be no."

Republican Senator Evelyn Lynn of Daytona Beach added an example of her own.

"As I understand it, and I need to ask if this is correct. That It's not if I broke my leg, and I'm a student who broke my leg. I don't fall under this category; that I would fall under it only if I had special wheelchair accommodations. It has to have special accommodations. So, it's not peanut necessarily because that's not a special accommodation. It would mean I would have to have a breathing, something or other to help me breathe, a special kind of medication that has to be administered particularly several times a day, is that the way it is now written?"

Wise applauded Lynn for her explanation, saying it was a better explanation than he could have come up with and Republican Senator John Thrasher of Jacksonville says the issues before lawmakers is simple.

"But, the way I look at this, is if you like McKay Scholarships, you'd probably vote for your bill. If you don't like McKay Scholarships, then you should probably vote against it, is that right? That's correct!"

The Senate passed the bill and the measure now heads to Governor Rick Scott for approval.