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    For a Better Florida

    Voucher plan's rush leaves standards behind

    By JON EAST, Times Perspective Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 23, 2003

    A three-year-old voucher program for disabled students in Florida has grown so quickly and haphazardly that the push for oversight is now coming from an unusual corner: the private schools that stand to benefit from the program.

    "We're worried about the schools that have given us all a black eye," says Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools. "Most of the schools that have wound up in the press don't even meet the minimum standards. If somebody would have checked them initially, they would not have been eligible to get any state money."

    "One of the things I would suggest is that the schools be accredited by some respected organization," says Perry Woodard, headmaster at Bishop-Eton, a small and well-regarded Tampa school for students with learning disabilities. "Right now, some of the schools may not be providing the services that are needed, which really could be an injustice to the child."

    The program is called the McKay Scholarship, named after the former Senate president, John McKay, who made it his personal mission to enact it. It is aimed at the 375,000 students who are diagnosed with learning disabilities, and it offers any single one of them the opportunity to go to a private school instead. Three things are of note: 1) any disabled student, regardless of income, is eligible; 2) private schools that accept McKay money aren't required to be accredited or even to have existed the prior year; 3) the reimbursement rate is as much as four times the amount of the state's two other voucher programs.

    This school year, McKay is serving 8,644 students at a cost to taxpayers of $54.7-million. Yet state education officials know precious little about how well it is working.

    They do know that 18 McKay students are enrolled at Bishop-Eton, a small school with a well-defined mission. Bishop-Eton serves children who are bright but have limitations, such as attention disorder, dyslexia or slowness in developing language skills. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, has an 18-year track record and a reputation for getting the job done. Total enrollment is 52; all four of last year's seniors are now in college.

    "In many public high schools, you are going to find that these kids are put into one large group," says headmaster Woodard. "We have the advantage of being smaller and more focused."

    What state education officials don't know is how many students are at schools that fail to meet the Bishop-Eton standards. In December, the state Department of Education cut off funding to the Excellence Academy, a St. Petersburg school that was operating out of an estate in foreclosure, with broken windows, overgrown vegetation, no electricity or water for at least two weeks, no license to operate a school and citations for housing code violations. That school came to the state's attention only because of newspaper reports and complaints by neighbors and city code inspectors. What of the schools that escape such publicity?

    Parents at a former St. Petersburg church school, for example, complained of physical abuse, lack of textbooks and unqualified staff. Staff at a Panhandle school held a press conference last year to allege their bosses were defrauding the state, that the school was accepting voucher checks for students who no longer attended, that students were not being provided promised educational services. Who is watching over these children?

    J.C. Bowman, choice office director, says the McKay law gives state officials few tools of supervision.

    "You are going to see some schools that aren't providing the kind of education we would want, but those schools will not last long," Bowman says. "Are they a disservice to kids? Certainly. But the vast majority are doing the right things. What I'm telling the private schools is this: Regulate yourself or the state will end up regulating you."

    Some of those schools are listening. They are trying to form a new association, and the existing Council of Independent Schools is compiling a book that will list all the existing local, state and federal laws that apply to schools. The intent is to provide that list to any school seeking McKay money and to pressure the Department of Education to begin enforcing those laws. Schools should not qualify for McKay money if they don't meet basic safety and child-welfare standards, Bliss says.

    But what the private schools are doing is simply not enough. In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will have an opportunity to review the disability scholarships. What they will find is that McKay's personal animosity toward public schools produced a law with an unhealthy chip on its shoulder. The result is that some students are being sent to unqualified private schools, and public schools are being treated like the enemy.

    The questions are mounting:

    -- Are all the private schools capable of the job? The law provides almost no standards for private McKay schools. They do not have to be accredited and their teachers don't even need high school diplomas. Why should the state send students, and tax dollars, to a school with no credentials?

    -- Are there enough checks and balances to prevent fraud? The law says that each voucher check must be signed by the parent and the school, but some schools have used power of attorney to sign hundreds of checks for parents. That has led to allegations of fraud, of schools cashing checks for students who are no longer enrolled.

    -- Are public schools losing money? The law allows students to transfer in and out of public school throughout the year, meaning the public schools must maintain their staffing levels even when the students -- and the tax money -- are in private schools. Worse, an analysis by Pinellas budget officials determined that, due to an outdated reimbursement formula, the county receives $5,500 for each student with a learning disability but loses almost $7,500 when the student gets a voucher. In other words, the district loses almost $2,000 per student.

    -- Is DOE following the law? Schools must "comply with all state laws relating to general regulation of private schools" and "meet state and local health and safety laws and codes," but DOE does not routinely check to assure they do. State law says the district is required to establish the cost of services for each McKay student, yet Pinellas officials have found 31 cases in which the state has changed the services and increased the voucher amount. State law says the McKay scholarship "does not apply to ... youth in Department of Juvenile Justice commitment," yet Pinellas officials found six such students. Pinellas found one student with no disability who was certified for a McKay scholarship because she broke a leg and received homebound education while she healed.

    For the McKay scholarship to succeed, lawmakers will need to take a dispassionate look at whether the laws and the regulation are enough to protect the students and the tax money they are sending to private schools. When the established private schools themselves are complaining the standards are too low, then lawmakers can be assured they need to act.

    -- Jon East is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.

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