Georgia's special ed policy to be investigated

The U.S. Justice Department plans to investigate claims that Georgia schools are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced Thursday.

The investigation by the department's Office of Civil Rights follows a complaint filed by the center in November, claiming  the Georgia Department of Education uses a funding formula that encourages districts to segregate students with disabilities in order to collect more money.

Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Thursday officials at the agency have not received any word from the Justice Department and cannot comment.

The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center said it based its complaint on the state's education funding formula, which was enacted by the General Assembly in 1985 as part of the Quality Basic Education Act.

Under the act, Georgia school districts receive more money when students with disabilities are taught in segregated, rather than traditional classrooms, the center 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, a staff attorney with the law center.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he'll wait to see the results of the Justice Department investigation.

"But at first glance, it appears that our antiquated funding formula, neglected by a bi-partisan succession of governors and legislatures, may be at the root of this particular matter," Callahan said.

A special commission was created by the General Assembly last year to review all major aspects of education funding, including the QBE formula.

Heidi J. Moore, a special education advocate and mother of two Fulton County public school students, said she welcomes the investigation.

"There have always been issues with the funding model in the state of Georgia," said Moore, who for years served on a state advisory panel on special education and has a son with Down syndrome and Leukemia.

She said she and other special education parents have long felt that, in Georgia, segregated programs "instead of being the last option, tend to be the first.

"That's frustrating when you read so many studies of kids doing well in an inclusive setting," Moore said. "The deal is, with special education, that one size doesn't fit all."

Some students need segregated programs, some need inclusive programs and some -- like her son -- need a combination of both, she said.

"I welcome any kind of investigation to prove the case that the student and the money are gong to the right location," Moore said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit civil rights organization based in based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.