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Disabled step up use of vouchers

As dozens of special education students head to private schools, school board attorneys worry about liability.

With little fanfare, Florida's newest voucher program has begun to take hold in isolated school districts, as dozens of special education students have transferred to private schools at the state's expense.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, about 18 learning disabled children are participating in the program this school year.

"As far as we're concerned, the program is up and running," said Eric Larson, president of Center Academy, which is schooling voucher students at one site in Palm Harbor and one in Lutz.

Even as the program has gotten under way, there are concerns about who will be held liable if a "special needs" child does not receive the services he is entitled to under federal law. School board attorneys from throughout the state are worried their districts will be held responsible, even if a parent chooses to take his or her child to a private school. On Monday, school board attorneys from around Florida will meet in Tallahassee to discuss the issue.

"It's our position that parents don't give up their rights to a free and appropriate education when they enter this program," said John Bowen, attorney for the Pinellas County schools.

The quiet start of the new "Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities" has provided a curious contrast to Florida's first voucher program for students from failing schools. The original program grabbed the school choice spotlight and drew interest from throughout the nation. So far, it has affected only 52 children.

Meanwhile, the newer program _ specifically for special-education students _ started and hardly anyone noticed. It could soon involve more than four or five times as many children as the more highly publicized program. So far, about 275 students statewide have expressed interest in the program, and the deadline still is weeks away.

The inconspicuous beginning could be attributed to the program's getting off to a late start. The rules have been created on the fly, many parents don't know about it, and the deadline has been set, waived and reset. The latest deadline for parents to apply to participate is Oct. 1.

But advocates for the special-education vouchers say the silence and complaints about liability and deadlines are part of a strategy to undermine the program.

"Parents don't even know the program exists," said Patrick Heffernan, president of Floridians for School Choice. "Districts haven't been notifying parents. Between that and the new deadline, they're essentially shutting down the program before it even gets started."

Many students could be eligible for the vouchers:those with physical disabilities such as deafness, those who are mentally retarded, or those who have emotional or learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher started sending out letters in late August, notifying parents whose children might be eligible for the program. Department of Education spokeswoman Karen Chandler estimated the state would send out about 283,000 letters at a cost of about $73,000.

(There are an estimated 350,000 special-education children in the state. Because 12 of Florida's 67 school districts already notified parents, the state is sending letters in the remaining 55 districts.)

Though the numbers remain modest, Gallagher said he is satisfied with the interest the program is generating so far.

"The idea is that it's a service being offered," Gallagher said. "It's giving parents choices."

"Given the incredible lack of communication, I'm surprised at 280 (parents expressing interest)," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. "That will get better."

The Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities was introduced in the last days of the legislative session. It was sponsored by Sen. John McKay of Bradenton after it was tried out on a limited basis in Sarasota last year.

With 350,000 Florida children categorized as "special needs" children, and with that population growing faster than the general school population, the program has the potential to far outpace the original voucher program.

Some criticized the proposal as a back-door method for expanding the voucher experiment. But advocates said it merely built on something already being done in some districts, which contract with private schools or agencies to take certain special-needs children.

Gallagher set a deadline of Aug. 15 for parents to apply for the program, but that deadline proved too tight. He then waived the deadline and left it open-ended. School superintendents, many of them opposed to the program, found the lack of a deadline to be problematic.

"School districts have to make plans and hire teachers for these kids; so what happens if the students leave in the middle of the year?" said Tom Weightman, chief executive officer for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

After Weightman and others protested, Gallagher set the Oct. 1 deadline.

The deadline, Heffernan said, sends the wrong message.

"Their only reason (for asking for a deadline) seems to be that it's inconvenient for the schools," Heffernan said. "I see no difference between a family moving in the middle of the school year and a family moving from public school to a private school. The family made a choice, and the schools adjust."

Thus far, 68 private schools in 20 school districts have expressed interest in accepting the vouchers. That includes schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough.

Though Gallagher is sending out letters notifying parents, some private schools took matters into their own hands. They jumped in even though it is unclear how much money they will get from the state for each child.

"We knew what the law said, so we advertised in the newspaper, and the phone started ringing," said Larson of the Center Academy, which has about six children in its Lutz campus and nine in Palm Harbor.

At the dePaul School for Dyslexia in Clearwater, Head of School Mary Hercher said the four former public schoolchildren now in her school were enrolled in her summer program. When Hercher told the parents about the new state voucher program, they decided to stay, she said.

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