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Pinellas leads revolt against voucher plan

The voucher program allows disabled students to attend private schools. Some educators fear it could jeopardize the state's federal funding.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


The Pinellas County school district is leading a coalition of 17 Florida districts challenging the state's new voucher plan for disabled students, claiming the plan fails to protect student rights and could endanger the state's federal funding.

The districts -- along with the Florida PTA, School Board Association and the Association for Retarded Citizens -- sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday explaining their concerns.

"The question has arisen," the letter reads, "as to whether the students ... with disabilities (who opt to attend a private school) are considered placed there by the parents or are they referred to ... the private school by the state."

If the students are referred by the state, as school districts believe they are, then the state still has a responsibility to guarantee them an appropriate education.

"Just because they're enrolled in a private school, these students haven't given up their rights," said Pinellas School attorney John Bowen, author of the letter sent to U.S. DOE onThursday.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities was created during the last days of the most recent Legislative session. Unlike the state's first voucher program, which targets students at chronically failing schools, this program is for disabled students whose parents feel they are not being served in the public schools.

Bowen and others think the new voucher program also differs in that disabled children are granted significant protections and guarantees under federal law. Bowen said that even though the disabled children in the program have transferred to a private school -- where their progress is not being monitored by the public schools -- the state is still responsible for meeting those federal guarantees of a free and appropriate education.

Joining Bowen and Pinellas County in signing the letter were attorneys from Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and 13 other school districts. Some of the districts have not yet been affected by the program, but they eagerly agreed to lend their names to Pinellas' cause anyway.

Hernando board members, who discussed the matter Tuesday, were chafed by the prospect that, along with losing state money that would follow voucher students to a private school, they might also be billed for additional costs that private schools incur from expanding their special education programs.

While the legal concerns are being reviewed, the program is up and running. In a few school districts such as Pinellas and Hillsborough, disabled children already have transferred to private schools courtesy of tax-supported state vouchers. Most of the Tampa Bay area children participating in the program are learning disabled, though the program is open to a child with any kind of disability.

Hundreds of disabled children across the state have registered for the program. A spokesman for the U.S. DOE said he couldn't comment on the letter.

- Staff writer Robert King contributed to this report.

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