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Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Florida Legislature, redefining who is disabled

From the St. Petersburg Times Gradebook

by Patricia Mazzie

Some students who have asthma, diabetes and ADHD could qualify for school vouchers under a proposal being pushed through the Florida Legislature that met with some resistance in a House panel Friday morning.

"A student who has asthma is very different from a student who can't speak," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat. She was referring to the McKay Scholarship Program, which lets students with disabilities use public money for private-school tuition.

The program would grow under House Bill 1329, which would allow 50,000 previously ineligible students to qualify for the vouchers.

Rep. Michael Bileca, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill, characterized the changes as "a modest expansion." More than 50,000 previously ineligible students would be able to use public money to pay for private school tuition under the plan.

But Bileca said only a small percentage of them would use the voucher, judging from how many students use it now. "Unfortunately, McKay is one of the best-kept secrets in the school system," he said.

Bileca criticized school districts for "gaming" the system in a "holding tactic" to delay classifying students as learning disabled so they could apply for the McKay voucher.

Districts, on the other hand, have bemoaned a plan the state education department has mandated on how teachers should help students who are having trouble learning. Schools officials have said the plan, known as "response to intervention," has slowed the process of identifying students as learning disabled.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future backs the voucher expansion. The foundation's director, Patricia Levesque, said letting more students go to private school on the public dime would free schools and districts from "very unsatisfied parents" who can make teachers' and principals' lives difficult.

But Ron Meyer, an attorney for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, warned members of the House Pre-K-12 Education budget subcommittee that expanding the vouchers could result in a legal challenge.

Florida courts struck down another voucher program that sent public money to private schools. The McKay vouchers were allowed, Meyer said, because they apply to a narrow group of disabled students.

"By doing this, you are not helping, you are not improving the McKay program," Meyer said. "You're threatening its very existence."

The committee, which met Friday after two grueling days of budget discussions solely to advance the vouchers bill, voted 11-3 for the bill. The vote was mostly along party lines; Rep. Marty Kiar, a Davie Democrat, voted for the bill but warned he could vote against it in the future.

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