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    Task force wants tighter reins on vouchers

    A panel wants to give parents of students with disabilities a choice in how they pay private schools.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 14, 2002

    A state task force is recommending changes in Florida's voucher program for students with disabilities in an effort to tighten controls on the millions of tax dollars going to private schools.

    The task force, comprising four Department of Education officials, was created after complaints from parents who used state vouchers to enroll their children in a private church school in St. Petersburg.

    The parents were concerned about how the tuition vouchers were spent and how their children were being taught.

    Besides several recommendations regarding voucher money, the task force wants parents to sign a statement acknowledging that the state has little control or oversight when it comes to private schools.

    Parent Marsharia Moore of St. Petersburg welcomed the changes.

    "It's always good to know where the money is going," said Moore, who has stuck with the voucher program despite dissatisfaction at one private school. She enrolled her son in another private school this year.

    Moore also agreed with the need to clarify the state's lack of oversight over private schools. She and other parents got the names of the eligible private schools from the Department of Education, and figured that meant the state had approved the schools and regulated them.

    The recommendations don't require any changes in law or legislative approval. If accepted, the department would simply revise its procedures as it administers the McKay Scholarship program.

    One issue taken up by the task force was the question of whether parents had to sign over the quarterly tuition checks to the school as the law states. At some schools, including the Bethel Metropolitan Christian School in St. Petersburg, parents grant power of attorney to the school's management company in Navarre Beach near Pensacola. The company then is able to cash the checks with no further approval from parents.

    The task force members wrote that they would prefer parents sign the checks. "This will enable parents to recognize the quarterly payments being made and acknowledge public funding for their child's education at the school of their choice." But they recommended simply that parents be given a choice.

    The chairman of the management company that used the power of attorney said Wednesday that he agreed with the task force recommendation.

    Arthur Rocker, chairman of the board for AJC 2000 Management Team, which manages six private schools around the state, said, "We welcome the checks and balances. It's all about accountability."

    Despite controversy and growing pains, demand for the school vouchers remains high.

    The McKay Scholarship program, named after its chief advocate, Senate President John McKay, has grown to include nearly 4,000 children statewide this year. The state is on schedule to shift roughly $25-million from public schools to private schools under the program.

    Critics see that multimillion dollar shift as a drain on the public schools. But advocates counter with one of the truisms of the school choice movement -- that it is merely a case of having the money follow the child, whether at a public or private school.

    The task force included Diane McCain, director of the Department of Education's school choice office, DOE general counsel Jim Robinson, Inspector General Melinda Miguel and David Morris of the DOE Office of Funding and Financial Reporting.

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    From the Times state desk