ATLANTA (AP) — The Justice Department is investigating claims of discrimination against students with disabilities in Georgia public school systems after a nonprofit group filed a complaint targeting the state's complex education funding formula, the group said Thursday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it received word from the Justice Department that investigators were looking into the complaint it filed in November claiming that the Georgia Department of Education used a funding formula that encourages districts to segregate students with disabilities to receive more funding.
"Too often, special needs children who have demonstrated significant progress in an integrated classroom are separated from their peers because it means the school district will receive more money," said Jerri Katzerman, the center's deputy legal director.
The Justice Department and state education officials didn't immediately comment. But legislative leaders pushed back on the notion that the formula encouraged discriminatory practices.
"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 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. Georgia, like many states, is using an "inclusion" model where disabled students are often placed in classes with their non-disabled classmates.
The state's education funding formula 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. And Millar said Thursday he doesn't expect upcoming changes 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."
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