Florida Special-Needs School Opens, Thanks to Vouchers

Published November 11, 2013

A new school for special-needs children opened its doors last month in Sarasota, Florida, in part thanks to vouchers.

The Selby School is a private kindergarten and high school for students with disabilities. It has been in the works for a year, and now the remodeled 4,000-square-foot building that was once a preschool has re-opened. The school, which was funded largely by grants and private donations, is on the campus of Community Haven, a community center for citizens with disabilities.

Boutique Size
Selby’s high school currently has seven students, and expects more in the coming months. The instructor-to-student ratio is 1:3. The students, who have varying physical and cognitive disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental delays, are instructed not only in standard subjects such as math, but also in vocational skills. They practice gardening, cooking, using tools, and more.

According to Bethany Higgins, the school’s development director, teachers use The Creative Curriculum, a specific strategy with an accompanying set of teaching materials, and adhere to state curriculum standards. The teaching staff, who are all experienced in special education, teach each student according to individual education plans.

The school’s greatest asset, according to the parent of a student with autism, is highly individualized services, which are essential to her son’s academic success and vocational preparedness.

Special-Needs Vouchers
Students at the Selby School receive tuition funding from the McKay Scholarship Program, a voucher program shepherded into law by former state Senate President John McKay and then-Governor Jeb Bush in 1999. The program allows families with children who have special needs to receive funding for a public or private school of their choice. The scholarships cover either the full tuition at the new school, or whatever the public school that the student transferred from would have spent on him or her.

Any public school student in Florida with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is eligible for a McKay Scholarship. The 2,000 percent increase in beneficiaries of the McKay program since ten years ago has made it the largest school voucher program in the nation, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Popularity among parents and hasn’t convinced everyone. The scholarships “undermine federal protections for disabled students and can encourage segregation from integrated environments with non-disabled peers,” said Michelle Mattisons, who used to teach at a McKay-recipient school.

A 2009 survey found 97 percent of McKay parents are satisfied with their child’s private school, while 37 percent of these parents felt the same about their previous public schools.

The average McKay voucher is worth $6,225. Special education spending is extremely opaque, but estimates put per-pupil special education funding near an average of approximately $20,000 per child nationwide. More than 23,000 Florida students receive the scholarships.

Image by Oleiade.