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Former Senate president backs expansion of namesake school vouchers

John McKay, the former Florida Senate president from Bradenton and namesake to state school vouchers for students with disabilities, backs a plan to grow the program.

In a phone interview, McKay, who has been critical of proposed voucher expansions in the past, said he was worried early on that the plan in this year's Legislature to change the definition of who qualifies as disabled might not help the students intended to benefit from the McKay Scholarship Program.

"I guard that pretty carefully," he said.

But he was persuaded by numbers cited by proponents of the bill that show fewer Florida students receiving individualized education plans, or IEPs, which under federal law designate children as disabled and eligible for special services -- including, under Florida law, the McKay voucher.

More students are falling under a separate state designation, known as 504, that also encompasses students with asthma, diabetes and ADHD.

School districts have said state mandates have slowed the process to create an IEP for students. Supporters of the voucher legislation have suggested the numbers show a concerted effort to keep students from qualifying for special services and vouchers under the IEP.

McKay said the drop in IEP students "seems like it might be more than coincidental."

As for suggestions that growing the program could prompt a legal challenge, McKay said: "That is possibly a concern, but then that's always been a concern."

"I am supportive of the plan at this point," he said. "I had reservations early on."

The House version of the expansion will be heard again on Wednesday. A Senate committee will take up its companion on Thursday.