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Vouchers proposed for disabled students

The legislation would grant private school tuition aid to some students with special needs.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In the final, frenzied week of the legislative session, a powerful state senator is quietly pushing a measure that could add thousands of students to Florida's controversial school voucher program.

The plan, sponsored by Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, would grant private school tuition vouchers to some students with learning disabilities and other special needs.

About 61,000 "special needs" students attend public schools in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Citrus and Hernando counties. Statewide, close to 350,000 students qualify for the "special needs" label, which extends to students who are mentally and physically handicapped, speech impaired and autistic, among other disabilities.

Students would be eligible for vouchers if they fail to improve at their public school, regardless of whether the school receives a poor grade from the state.

"If a child is not keeping pace . . . for two years in a row, a parent can request an Opportunity Scholarship for that child," McKay said, using Gov. Jeb Bush's official term for vouchers.

McKay, the incoming Senate president, said House Speaker John Thrasher and Bush support his measure. The Senate has given preliminary approval to the plans, which McKay tacked on as amendments to other bills this week.

McKay's measure would expand a pilot program begun this year in Sarasota County, part of which falls inside his legislative district.

In its first year, the expanded program would be limited to 5 percent of students with disabilities in each school district. The number would rise to 10 percent in the second year and 20 percent in the third year. After that, all limits would be off.

Vouchers for disabled students could be worth as much as $25,000, depending on the severity of the disability. Parents wanting a voucher would have to show their child's failure to reach specific performance goals, or that the child scored below grade level on certain tests.

"We're adamantly opposed to it," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "We're opposed to vouchers, and that's a backdoor approach to vouchers."

In March, a Circuit Court judge ruled that the state's voucher plan violates the Florida Constitution. The plan grants vouchers to students at schools rated "F" by the state two years in a row. Bush is appealing the ruling.

Blanton predicted McKay's voucher plan would meet the same fate. But McKay turns to the same ruling for evidence that his plans could withstand a court test.

The ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith recognized that Florida already pays private schools to educate a relatively small number of disabled students who can't be accommodated in public schools. Bush's attorneys argued that declaring vouchers to be unconstitutional would endanger those programs.

Smith, however, said those disabled students are different, because they have needs that cannot be met in public schools. Therefore, McKay argues, the courts would allow vouchers for any disabled students who aren't succeeding in public schools.

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