A Florida state representative is considering filing legislation to regulate private schools that accept vouchers for disabled students, in light of a scandal involving millions of tax dollars spent fraudulently.
In June 2011 the Miami New Times published information from Florida Department of Education inspector general reports that detailed fraudulent programs the DOE had discovered in the course of its accountability measures for private schools receiving John. M. McKay tax-funded scholarships for disabled students. Most of the fingered programs were shut down, or key administrators removed, after the DOE discovery and before the New Times exposé.
The New Times article listed instances such as when “the woefully cash-strapped Florida Department of Education” paid $2 million in McKay vouchers to a school crowding more than 200 children into condemned buildings and, when ousted, taught in public parks.
Administrators at other voucher-receiving schools had criminal records for dealing cocaine, kidnapping, and burglary. Some parents swindled the program by falsifying their children’s test results or school history to gain admittance. In total, the DOE had investigated 38 schools of the 1,013 currently participating in the program, and substantiated claims against 25, or 2.5 percent.
Calls for More Regulation
The report has led one of the program’s sponsors, state Sen. Stephen R. Wise (R-Jacksonville), to call for legislative hearings and state Rep. Rick Kriseman (D-St. Petersburg) to consider sponsoring legislation more heavily regulating McKay recipient schools. Florida’s 2012 session runs Jan. 1 to March 9.
Kriseman wrote to Florida House K-20 Innovation Subcommittee Chair Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) on Nov. 29, 2011, as that committee’s ranking Democrat, suggesting several new regulations including: site inspections of all new McKay schools; DOE review of all required school staff background checks; requiring all McKay schools to be public-school-level accredited; that all teachers at McKay schools be state certified; and state review of participating private schools’ curriculum and textbooks.
“It’s been presented as if these are Wild West schools out on their own, and this isn’t the way it works,” said Robert McClure, president and CEO of the Florida-based James Madison Institute. “If we turn [McKay private schools] into glorified public schools, Florida’s vast education growth in the past decade will be stunted.”
McClure notes Florida’s dramatic rise in graduation rates and reduction in white-minority achievement gaps within “one of the most dynamic k-12 populations in the country” during the past decade of expanded school choice in the state. Florida hosts the largest digital learning enrollment in the country, tax credit scholarships, and a robust charter sector, and publicly posts grades for all public schools and forbids social promotion for third graders.
Current McKay laws require recipients to be classified disabled by their local public school, as marked by having an Individual Education Plan or 504 Accommodation Plan, both of which are federally defined “disabled student” statuses, and be currently enrolled in a state public school. Schools receiving McKay funds must currently certify all staff having direct contact with students have had background checks and filed fingerprint screenings, meet all applicable state and federal health and safety laws and regulations, and adopt ethical policies for teachers and administrators.
Participating and approved schools must resubmit this compliance information every three years. The Florida DOE also conducts about 10 random inspections of McKay schools each year, said Michael Kooi, director of the state’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.
“When you have programs like this that involve private actors, individuals, or entities, you’ll always have some that try to take advantage of those programs for criminal purposes,” he said.
Fraud in Non-Voucher Schools
Research and history both demonstrate that is true also of public officials and schools, McClure notes. In a 2007 study of school scandals, researchers Greg Forster and Matthew Carr found misconduct slightly more likely in public schools than private schools, despite the comparatively large amount of regulations in public schools.
A 2011 study of the McKay program by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters found the program reduced the likelihood of over-diagnosing students with a disability and increased academic achievement in public schools. A 2009 report from the same pair concluded McKay restrained special education funding growth, and earlier research noted it accomplished this to 93 percent parental satisfaction and a 50 percent increase in student needs adequately met over public schools.
In 2010-2011, Florida spent $150 million on McKay scholarships for 22,198 students, an average scholarship of $7,209. Florida spent $606 million in federal special education funding in 2008-2009.
Danger of Excess Regulation
Kooi said implementing Kriseman’s suggestions “would require a great deal more resources than what we currently have, particularly the curriculum review.” Reviewing private school curricula, especially in the 65 percent of participating schools that are religious, would “certainly create some excessive state entanglement with religious entities,” he said.
Instead, he notes, the legislature could consider requiring McKay recipient schools to undergo an annual audit and test students yearly, as the Florida Board of Education has already recommended as legislative priorities and is required for the state’s tax credit scholarship program. He also suggests allowing the DOE to inspect participating schools not at random but upon reasonable suspicion or complaint.
“Once you start getting engaged in ‘How qualified are their teachers?’ and ‘Is their curriculum acceptable?’ you’re starting to treat them like public schools,” Kooi said.
Image by Honza Soukup.