Questions arise surrounding Florida deaf education appropriation

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The record-breaking budget currently sitting on Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s desk awaiting his signature contains a line item that appropriates half a million dollars for deaf education.It is written so narrowly, though, that less than 2 percent of deaf children in Florida are eligible for the funding. Instead, it appears to duplicate existing financial aid and earmark $500,000 for two private schools that are members of the same consortium, essentially funneling taxpayer money to private interests.

Specific Appropriation 104 in Florida’s 2013 budget details criteria for the “Auditory-Oral Education Grants.”

“Funds … shall be awarded to Florida public or private nonprofit school programs serving deaf childen … from birth to age seven,” the item reads. “These schools must offer solely auditory-oral education programs as defined in Florida Statutes 1002.391, and have a supervisor and faculty members who are credentialed as Certified Listening and Spoken Language Specialists.”

The last sentence is the linchpin around which the earmark revolves and what essentially —likely intentionally — limits the grants to two private schools.

Qualifying schools

Of the 17 certified LSL specialists that the Alexander Graham Bell Association, the national certifying body, lists in its Florida directory, four work at two programs that fit all the other criteria.

They are the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Jacksonville and The Debbie School at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. They serve children up to ages 7 and 8, respectively, and have a combined enrollment of about 65 students. Both are members of the OPTION Schools organization that accredits solely auditory-oral private programs in the U.S. and three other countries.

Florida has thousands of deaf students enrolled in public schools across the state and at the Florida School for the Deaf. A Florida Department of Education report records 4,190 students in K-12th grade whose primary "exceptionality" is deafness.

Public schools are required by federal law to accommodate a range of needs. If a student's IEP requires auditory and speech therapy or a particular mode of instruction, then the school has to provide that or send the student to a school that can accommodate the student's particular needs.

However, because public schools by law cannot be exclusively auditory-oral only, their deaf students are ineligible for the grants, as are those at FSDB, which offers instruction in English and American Sign Language. The only public school district that employs a LSL specialist, Orange County Public Schools, offers sign language instruction, which means all its students - regardless of whether they are auditory-oral - also are ineligible.

In contrast, private oral schools have fewer legal obligations and are able to selectively enroll students and limit their instruction and communication to spoken English.  

Thousands more deaf and hard of hearing children throughout the state are younger than 5. The 2011 American Community Survey counted more than 4,600 of them, but none qualify for the auditory-oral grants unless their parents choose an OPTION School.

Essentially, of at least 9,000 deaf children ages birth through 18 throughout Florida, less than a hundred are eligible for the auditory-oral grants.

Florida legislature

Specific Appropriations 104 appears to have been pushed through the legislature by people connected to OPTION Schools and Clarke Schools. The foundation was laid in 2011 with Statute 1002.391, which defined auditory-oral programs as those who do not use any visual communication modes and employ LSL specialists. In order to enroll, students have to use hearing technology and be between ages 3 and 7.

The original statute, filed by Sen. Stephen Wise in May 2011, contained language that required auditory-oral programs to be accredited by OPTION Schools. Three days after Sen. Wise filed the statute, Rep. Janet Adkins filed an amendment stripping it of any mention of OPTION Schools.

Because of the remaining language, however, the impact of the bill remains the same: Only the two OPTION Schools meet the criteria.

Rep. Adkins later received donations for her 2012 reelection campaign from at least seven people connected to Clarke School, including Jennifer Rosner, wife of Clarke Schools president William Corwin, who also chairs OPTION Schools' legislative wording committee. Adkins also received donations from Clarke Schools trustee Dr. Daniel Montero and Clarke-Jacksonville co-directors Alisa Demico and Cynthia Robinson, who also sits on OPTION Schools' legislative wording and accreditation committees.

After two bills that would have promoted auditory-oral education died in session earlier this year, Adkins appears to have helped ensure Specific Appropriation 104 made it into the budget and that Clarke Schools-Jacksonville would receive the funding.

While the bills were still being debated, Sen. Garrett Richter, original sponsor of one of the bills and a member of the Senate's Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, and Sen. Bill Galvano, subcommittee chair, inserted line item 104 into the Senate's proposed budget. It originally required that SB 1240 pass in order for the auditory-oral grants to kick in.

After the bills died, the budget returned from reconciliation minus the requirement and with added language that restricted the grants to the two OPTION Schools. That language originated with the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee - on which Rep. Adkins sits.

People connected to Clarke Schools' Jacksonville campus have used other deceptive tactics to push for legislative funding of auditory-oral only programs. A recent video uncovered attempted subterfuge in the development of a website purporting to speak for the deaf community and a connected petition pushing for bills supporting auditory-oral funding. A parent of a former Clarke-Jacksonville student registered the site, and evidence strongly suggests the involvement of a current parent who also is a trustee of Clarke Schools.

Duplicating an existing program

Specific Appropriation 104 appears to duplicate an existing scholarship program administered by the Florida Department of Education through its School Choice program. The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities last year distributed about $151.3 million. Awards ranged from almost $5,000 to about $18,500.

The scholarships are available to all students regardless of language or communication mode and are intended to help parents who feel their child’s needs are not being met at his/her current school. The funding helps parents transfer their child to a different public school … or even a private school.

Clarke Schools’ Jacksonville program accepts the scholarships. Not only does the program have access to state funding through the scholarships, but it also receives grants through private groups. Oberkotter Foundation gave Clarke Schools Inc. nearly $4.8 million in 2011 and 2012. Of that funding, Jacksonville received $905,000.

Theresa Bulger, a registered lobbyist for Clarke Schools who pushed for auditory-oral legislation in Florida, is also director of OPTION Schools and has a fundraising and lobbying business that centers around promoting auditory-oral education. She has significant professional and financial stakes in ensuring Specific Appropriation 104 becomes reality; OPTION Schools and her business stand to benefit.

Was Specific Appropriation 104 really designed to help Florida's deaf and hard of hearing students, or was it pushed through in order to lock in funding for OPTION Schools? Does the appropriation do taxpayers a disservice by duplicating existing funding in such a way that benefits private interests more than it does deaf children?

For the Florida legislature to so narrowly restrict these auditory-oral grants to private, exclusive schools that offer only one communication option appears to defy the idea of informed choice by parents of young deaf and hard of hearing children by essentially limiting these parents to a single choice in order to qualify for these grants.

Those who wish to contact Gov. Scott and express their opinions about whether he should line-item veto Specific Appropriation 104 should contact his office.

Note: Related documents and links will be added soon.



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