Add To Favorites In PHR
Scott Maxwell: Discrimination: Florida voucher schools can reject kids with disabilities | Commentary
Orlando Sentinel - 8/6/2019
Aug. 6--We already know that Florida's$1 billion voucher-school system is a largely unregulated wild west.
Voucher schools can hire unqualified teachers. They can use bogus curriculum. They can be such financial wrecks that they shut down in the middle of the school year. And they're allowed to deny admission to students who are gay or have gay parents.
Florida's "school choice" politicians -- Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and House speaker Jose Oliva -- have consistently defended this hot mess. Forget accountability. They say unhappy parents or angry taxpayers should simply "choose" to avoid shoddy or discriminatory schools.
But I've now learned about another kind of discrimination allowed in Florida's publicly funded voucher system -- against special-needs students.
Some schools have written policies against accepting students with disabilities.
At Trinity Christian School in Volusia, the school's policies say students must be "ambulatory" and have "no emotional disorders or limited intellectual functions (such as Autism, Asperger's, Down's syndrome, etc.)."
The school relied on more than $1.5 million in tax-credit and taxpayer funded vouchers for more than 370 students last year.
Advocates say they've long known some private schools don't want to deal with special-needs families. But they were still surprised to see it written in black in white.
"They do not want our kids," said Stacey Hoaglund, president of the Autism Society of Florida. "Our kids are costly. Our kids are expensive."
Trinity is also one of the many schools with blatant policies against LGBT kids -- including a rule that says the school can expel any student who says: "I am gay."
All of these policies -- to exclude gay or disabled students -- are allowed under Florida's "choice" plan.
Public schools must take all students. Publicly supported voucher schools can pick and choose the kids they want. They can reject kids in wheelchairs, those who have low IQs or who are gay.
Some schools use more creative language in urging special-needs students to stay away. A voucher school in Largo warns parents it won't accommodate any students whose "physical needs cannot be met by our existing programs, services or staff." Another in Miami stresses it is "not geared toward assisting children with autism" and that all students must post "average to above average on reading and math entrance exam scores" to be admitted.
In a twisted way, there's actually some value in the candor of these schools admitting they don't want (or are incapable of properly educating) special-needs kids. Other voucher schools have been caught courting special-needs families, but just pocketing the money meant for therapy and education.
Officials at Trinity in Volusia did not respond to a request for comment. But legal experts say voucher schools have the right to turn away disabled children.
Why? Because the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to churches. And the schools mentioned above are all church-run schools.
"Parents planning to use the voucher programs need to keep in mind that they are losing most of their legal protections and all of the civil rights protections," explained Kimberley Spire-Oh, a South Florida attorney and member of the Disability Rights Bar Association. "Private schools can kick kids out for behaviors related to disability or for any reason at all, really."
Does that make it right? No.
"Disability inclusion is a civil right," said Melissa Brzezinski, a spokesman for the Center for Independent Living in Central Florida. "Schools are the first step in helping children learn and feel acceptance with their peers."
But some schools don't just don't care. And choice advocates, mainly GOP leaders, have resisted accountability and inclusion measures. They believe voucher schools deserve the "religious freedom" to discriminate -- even with taxpayer money.
DeSantis, Oliva and Corcoran all refused to answer questions about the schools that shun special-needs kids. They love to boldly promote "choice" but dodge questions about the discrimination they allow in their plan.
Step Up for Students -- the nonprofit group paid millions to administer much of the state's voucher (or "scholarship") programs -- also offered no comment on schools with anti-disability policies. It said it had no data about how many voucher schools had similar policies.
That's one of many flaws in the state's voucher system. It lacks accountability. The state doesn't track school policies, check for qualified teachers or even set foot in the schools most years.
It's up to the media.
After the Sentinel exposed Orlando'sCalvary City Christian Academy as one of many schools with anti-LGBT policies, the school removed its discriminatory policies -- and claimed it hadn't really been enforcing them anyway.
It's possible Trinity doesn't really follow all its stated anti-disability policies as well. The school took some voucher money meant for students with special needs.
But why should we even play this guess-who's-discriminating game?
No publicly funded school should be allowed to discriminate, period.
If you want to discriminate, use your own money.
But if you take public money, you should serve all the public.
Democratic legislators have proposed regulations to end discrimination against LGBT students. They should do the same for those with special needs.
After months of silence and indifference from Tallahassee, Senate President Bill Galvano became the first influential GOP leader to say the system may need reform.
"I fully support reviewing codes of conduct and acceptance policies in private schools that accept scholarship students," Galvano said in a statement Monday, "because I want to ensure all Florida students are educated in an environment that safeguards their health, safety and welfare."
I hope he follows through.
I get that some tiny one-room school might not be able to effectively teach students with profound needs. But big, publicly funded schools shouldn't be able to simply skim the easy-to-teach students off the top -- and bypass kids in wheelchairs or with even mild conditions -- simply because it's less trouble or more profitable.
Latest Scott Maxwell
Discrimination: Florida voucher schools can reject kids with disabilities -- Commentary
Assault weapons ban in Florida? A.G. Moody wants to block voters from having a say -- Commentary
Aug 2, 2019
Florida's back-to-school sales tax holiday -- a costly gimmick -- Commentary
Jul 31, 2019
Special-needs families have had historically tough roads, including in public schools. That's part of what prompted many to look for alternatives -- some of which are charter schools or voucher schools that do good jobs.
But public money without accountability, transparency, solid standards -- and inclusiveness -- is no way to run an education system.
As the Autism society's Hoaglund said: "Public dollars shouldn't go to schools that won't serve all kids. It's not that complicated."
(c)2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.