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    Bill expands disabled vouchers

    The proposal allows any parents to apply if they are dissatisfied with their disabled child's progress.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- The Legislature launched an experiment in 1999 to give parents of disabled students the chance to put their children in private schools with taxpayer dollars.

    Even lawmakers opposed to vouchers voted for the program to help disabled kids get the best education possible.

    Now, the program is about to go well beyond the experiment stage, alarming voucher critics.

    The Legislature is moving forward with a bill that will make it far easier for parents of disabled students to get state money for private school, and remove caps designed to limit the size of the program.

    The Department of Education estimates that 3,000 to 5,000 disabled students could get vouchers next year, up from 982 students around the state this school year. Only two disabled students participated in 1999-2000, when the program began as a pilot in Sarasota County.

    The program for disabled students is less well known than Gov. Jeb Bush's initiative to give vouchers to all students in failing schools. But with little fanfare the disabled voucher program has eclipsed Bush's other effort.

    This spring, lawmakers have passionately debated legislation that would give vouchers to students in crowded schools and tax credits to corporations that help pay private school tuition for poor students. But there has been little discussion about the major expansion of the voucher program for disabled students.

    The state Senate has already approved the legislation, a top priority of Senate President John McKay, whose daughter struggled with learning disabilities.

    The bill is now moving through the state House, with the House Education Appropriations committee approving its own version by a 12-2 vote on Tuesday.

    "I love this bill because it empowers parents," said State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who has a blind, 14-year-old son.

    Rep. Stan Jordan, R-Jacksonville, said that years ago, he was a principal at a school for special education students. "As much as we tried . . . we didn't meet the needs of these children. It saddened me every day."

    But Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, said there is nothing in the legislation that would ensure that disabled students will get a better education in a private school. And Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, voted against the bill because it does not require that teachers in the private schools be certified in special education. His wife is a special education teacher.

    In addition, the legislation makes makes it easier to get the vouchers, Richardson said.

    Under current law, parents of disabled children must meet certain criteria to qualify for a voucher. The main requirement is that their child does not make expected progress in at least two areas specified in a formal, individual education plan at public school. The House bill approved Tuesday says only that parents can apply for a voucher if they are "dissatisfied" with their child's progress.

    The bill also removes the caps that limited the voucher program to 5 percent of students with disabilities in the first year; 10 percent in the second year, and 20 percent of students with disabilities in the third year. With no caps in place, the potential for the program is huge: There are 340,000 students with disabilities in Florida schools this year, from children who are mentally handicapped and physically impaired to students who have speech and language problems.

    Currently, analysts say, the average voucher for disabled students is at least $6,500, meaning the program will cost more than $30-million if 5,000 students participate next year.

    The Florida Education Association spoke against the legislation Tuesday, saying costs could skyrocket if thousands more parents begin taking advantage of the program.

    Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said he is supports changes that would expand the voucher program.

    "If a parent is disappointed with the education they are receiving for their disabled child, why should we stand in the way of them having an opportunity to make a choice," Crist said.

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