St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Disability heals but voucher remains

A loophole in the McKay Scholarship plan lets the money keep flowing even after injuries or illness are gone.

STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published October 4, 2003

Florida students who are not disabled are using taxpayer dollars to attend private schools under the state's McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities.

Because of a quirk in the 2-year-old McKay Scholarship law, even students who were temporarily disabled remain eligible for the program "until the student ... graduates from high school."

The law provides no mechanism for "dismissal" from the program. So a student classified as disabled because of a broken leg is eligible for increased funding and a private school voucher long after the leg heals.

That's what happened in Pinellas County.

A Pinellas student who broke a leg in the spring still is using a McKay voucher to attend a private school this school year, even though the leg healed months ago, according to Pinellas school officials.

"I don't think it was intended to work this way, but once you qualify under McKay, you're in," said Doug Forth, assistant superintendent in charge of budgeting for Pinellas County schools.

It is unclear how many students statewide are taking advantage of the quirk in the law. It also is unclear how much money the state is paying to send the nondisabled children to private school.

But school officials in the Tampa Bay area can point to several examples.

In Hillsborough County, a student was diagnosed with depression, and a doctor recommended she stay at home. She was placed in the district's "hospital homebound" program, which qualified her for a McKay Scholarship and increased funding. The student recovered enough to attend school - a private school. Her tuition could be shouldered by taxpayers until she graduates.

"It's one of those unintended consequences," said Jim Hamilton, chief of staff for Hillsborough schools. "I know there are some disabled students who are benefitting from the program. But I don't think it was intended for students who don't have a disability."

Some 11,300 students statewide are attending private schools this year using McKay Scholarships. Nearly half have learning disabilities, and many of them require long-term services. Under the McKay program, private schools get the same amount of money to educate the child that public schools would get.

Average funding for a McKay Scholarship this year is $5,840. Funding for individual children varies among school districts, but runs to $20,000. The state spends an average of $5,524 per pupil, a figure that includes traditional and special education students.

Special education students in public schools are re-evaluated every three years to see if they still are eligible for special services. If their circumstances change, their funding level changes. Not so if a student has gone to private school using a McKay Scholarship.

In those cases, the school district still is supposed to conduct the re-evaluation. But even if the disability changes, the funding level doesn't. Even students with disabilities that often prove temporary, such as youngsters who need speech therapy, remain eligible for higher levels of funding.

In an August 2002 memorandum, the Florida Department of Education addressed a question about the proper funding for a McKay Scholarship student whose circumstances change. The answer: The funding level "is not subject to change and will be used to calculate the scholarship amount for the duration of the student's participation in the program."

A DOE official said the fact that funding levels remain unchanged cuts both ways.

"True, there's no opportunity to reduce that level of funding, but the flip side is there's no opportunity to raise the funding either," said Shan Goff, chief of the bureau of instructional support and community services. The department did not know if that results in a net loss or gain for the state.

School district officials and some lawmakers said they don't like the idea that nondisabled students are getting vouchers for students with disabilities.

"That's a potentially embarrassing loophole," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-West Palm Beach, a member of the Senate Education Committee. "That's my biggest legislative priority: work on an accountability bill for the state voucher programs. This loophole is definitely something that needs to be fixed."

Lawmakers and school officials also were puzzled that a McKay student gets the voucher until graduation. The state's view was laid out in the August 2002 Q&A memo from the Department of Education. One question asked what if "a McKay scholarship student should be dismissed from exceptional education?"

The answer: "There is currently no provision for the "dismissal' of participating students from the McKay Scholarship Program." The memo then cited state law: "The scholarship shall remain in force until the student returns to a public school or graduates from high school."

The lack of a "dismissal" provision appears most problematic in the "hospital homebound" programs, where funding is high and the disabilities are almost always temporary.

Hospital homebound makes up less than 1 percent of the state's special education population, and roughly the same percentage in the McKay Scholarship program.

A student in that program could draw up to roughly $20,000 annually. Such an amount might be required to provide one-on-one instruction to a seriously injured homebound student, for example. Pinellas County cited one example where a student on the hospital homebound program for two months then entered the McKay program at the $20,000 level.

The money from the McKay Scholarship goes to the school, after being endorsed by the parent.

The McKay Scholarship law and Florida's other two voucher laws have come in for intense criticism and scrutiny in recent months. Education Commissioner Jim Horne and several lawmakers have promised to reform the laws and rules governing the programs. Horne has proposed several changes and is expected to propose more soon.

State senators have taken a particular interest in the state's voucher programs, including the program named after former Senate President John McKay.

In April, Senate President Jim King appointed a task force to examine the McKay program. One member of that task force said the eligibility loophole should be closed.

"That's ridiculous; temporary disabilities shouldn't be eligible for McKay," said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. "Clearly this program needs some serious reform. I am of the opinion we need to look at the academic and fiscal. And now this."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.