ATLANTA -- The Justice Department said Thursday it is investigating claims of discrimination against students with disabilities in Georgia public school systems after a nonprofit group filed a complaint.
The Southern Poverty Law Center contends the Georgia Department of Education used a complex funding formula that encourages districts to segregate students with disabilities to receive more funding.
"All children do better in an inclusive environment. There are higher expectations of children with disabilities in an inclusive classroom and they have opportunities for social interaction they don't have in segregated classrooms," said Jerri Katzerman, the center's deputy legal director. "There's also benefits for students without disabilities who get more exposure to diverse learning styles."
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said officials were reviewing the complaint it received in November. Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state department of education, declined comment because he said the agency has not yet received the complaint from federal officials, but legislative leaders pushed back.
"Perhaps they have better things to spend their time on," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Fran Millar, a Republican from Atlanta. "Do they really think in today's time we're trying to take a kid that's disabled and stick them in the corner? We're trying to mainstream kids as much as possible."
The federal complaint centers on the Quality Basic Education funding formula first adopted by lawmakers in 1985. The formula provides more money when students with disabilities are taught in segregated classrooms than when they are taught in general classrooms, the complaint contends.
"Students with disabilities often face discrimination by teachers and their peers due to assumptions about what it means to have a disability," said Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the center. "Research shows that when students with and without disabilities are placed in the same classroom, they are better prepared to embrace diversity and inclusivity."
Education experts disagree over whether special needs students should be included in regular classrooms or separated into their own learning environment. Some schools in Georgia are using an "inclusion" model where disabled students are often placed in classes with their non-disabled classmates, but advocates said that trend has declined as the economy tanked and districts needed more money.
The state's education funding formula -- long overdue for a redesign -- is also a source of frequent disagreements. Lawmakers have set up a commission to recommend how to overhaul the formula, but so far the group has made few changes.
State Rep. Brooks Coleman, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the overall formula "needs to be updated and brought into the 21st century." But Millar said Thursday he doesn't expect the 20-member panel to tweak the policy on funding for special-needs students.
"I don't plan to look at this at all. When you have a child with disabilities, it costs more money to educate them. Duh. What do they want us to do, not educate them?" he said. "I haven't had any complaints. I've had no complaints at all, in 14 years, from anyone about the fact that their child with a disability has been treated improperly in one of our schools."
Katzerman said the center filed the complaint after receiving numerous complaints from families and attorneys who claimed an "epidemic" of special needs students being placed in separate classrooms.
"We're not suggesting that the state not fund the education of students with disabilities, we just want them to fund them in a way the federal law requires," she said. "What we're asking is they remove those barriers to inclusion."
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