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    Disability voucher plan grows

    In the Tampa Bay area, about 70 children attend private schools on the state's disability scholarships.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
    Rachel Bell, 13, a student who uses vouchers to attend the private Center Academy, reads a version of Huckleberry Finn.
    PALM HARBOR -- Despite confusing deadlines and a stumbling start, Florida's newer and lesser-known tuition voucher program has expanded to more than 100 private schools and more than 1,000 children.

    The cost for the Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities in this first year is $5.8-million -- tax dollars spent on private school tuition.

    Voucher advocates say those numbers are a good sign.

    "It's remarkable, in light of the shifting deadlines and the lack of communication, that so many children found their way to this program," said Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice. "Once the word gets out, you're going to see this program grow."

    Voucher critics, however, see in those same numbers evidence that most parents with disabled children are content to stick with the public schools. And critics ask the question hovering over both of Florida's school voucher programs: How do we know if the students are doing better in private school?

    "The numbers are not that big, given the number of special education students in this state (roughly 350,000)," said Wayne Blanton, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association. "I think most parents are happy. If there's one thing that public schools do well, it's delivering special education services. If some parents want to make a different choice, I have no problem with that.

    "But are their kids making better progress?" Blanton asked. "We don't know. There's no measurement."

    Eileen Zoellner says she knows the answer to that question, at least for her daughter Rebecca.

    Zoellner of Palm Harbor took Rebecca, 15, out of the Pinellas County schools because she felt her daughter was falling behind. She took a state voucher and enrolled Rebecca in Center Academy in Palm Harbor, a school where 18 of 35 students receive state vouchers for tuition.

    "They lost her in middle school," Zoellner said, speaking of her experience with public schools. "They didn't want to hold her back anymore (she was retained once in elementary school), and they just moved her along. But she wasn't learning. We were looking for alternatives."

    Take a peek at a classroom in Center Academy and you'll see a wide open space. Most of the desks are along the walls, sectioned off into separate cubicles. It cuts down on distractions.

    That seems to work better for Rebecca and the other students with learning disabilities who can easily get lost or distracted on a big campus and in a busy classroom.

    During Christmas time, Eileen Zoellner said, her daughter wrote a card to her teacher saying, "Thank you for teaching me in a way I understand."

    Though no definitive numbers are available, statewide the program appears to have attracted a certain kind of student. Not students in wheelchairs. Not youngsters with severe emotional disorders or physical impairments. It's the students with learning disabilities who need some help getting through class assignments that have taken these vouchers.

    That makes sense because the vast majority of Florida students categorized as disabled are those with learning disabilities. Also, many private schools around the state are equipped to handle children with learning problems, but not equipped for children with severe physical disabilities.

    "Michael was behind and didn't seem to be getting anywhere," said Dolores Hendricks, whose grandson, 13-year-old Michael Haggins, attends Center Academy on a voucher. She was concerned that Michael would fall further behind when he went to a middle school and a bigger campus. She is convinced he is making progress now.

    In the Tampa Bay area, about 70 children are attending private schools on the disability scholarships. That includes 30 from Hillsborough County, 19 from Pasco County (many of them attend Center Academy in either Palm Harbor or Lutz), and 23 from Pinellas. One child from Pinellas started at a private school, but returned to the public school already.

    The disability scholarships are limited to children who meet certain eligibility requirements. They must have been enrolled in a public school the previous year and identified as a special education student. And there is supposed to be evidence that the child's academic needs aren't being met in public school.

    Across the state, 43 students who signed up for the program were ruled ineligible for one reason or another. Apparently, most of them fell short on the first two criteria: enrollment in a public school and designation as a special education student. The state is interpreting the law to allow most applicants to get a voucher if the parent feels their child has not been well served in a public school.

    "Most of the ones (who took a voucher) from Hillsborough have been two or three years below reading grade level, so that's pretty clear," said Edward McDowell, director of exceptional student education for the Hillsborough County schools. He said Hillsborough has rejected some applicants who couldn't demonstrate that they were not making academic progress.

    Last week, the state's testing season started for many of Florida's schoolchildren. They began with the state's writing test, and next month they'll resume with reading and math. Students in the state's first voucher program -- for students from chronically failing schools -- will take the state's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but their results are not expected to be made public.

    Students in the new voucher program for students with disabilities don't have to take the FCAT. Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said the choice is up to the parents.

    So it will be unclear how the students are progressing academically. Some educators see that as a flaw in the program. How will the state know if the investment is worthwhile?

    But voucher advocates say that so long as parents have a choice, it is up to them to decide whether their child is progressing.

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