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    Florida voucher program surges

    The scholarship program, which pays for disabled students to attend private schools, grows from 1,000 students to 3,770, costing the state $25-million.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 5, 2001


    The state is on schedule to spend more than $25-million on private school tuition for disabled children this year, nearly quadrupling the number of students getting state voucher money.

    The McKay Scholarship program, which primarily provides tuition checks for students diagnosed with learning disabilities, grew in one year from about 1,000 children to 3,770 this fall, according to the Department of Education. Florida is now poised to become home to the nation's second-largest voucher program.

    The growth of the state's voucher program has been aided by several factors:

    The rules have been changed. Parents no longer have to demonstrate that their child is lagging academically. Now parental dissatisfaction with public school is enough for a disabled child enrolled in a public school to be eligible.

    An extension of the deadline for parents to sign up. After a request from Senate President John McKay, for whom the program is named, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist extended the July 1 deadline more than a month and a half to Aug. 20, enabling hundreds more parents to sign up after missing the earlier deadline.

    An explosion of private schools interested in taking state dollars to educate disabled children. This year, 342 private schools are participating, up from 68 schools this time last year. Participating schools include several established specifically with McKay Scholarship students in mind.

    The nearly fourfold growth in the program after one year is good news to Senate President McKay.

    "I think that's great," McKay said Tuesday. "Obviously there was a need."

    The program seems to be evidence of pent-up parental demand for school choice. But it also is giving rise to resentment of the state among public school educators who clearly aren't happy seeing scores of dissatisfied parents leave to go to private schools that may or may not serve their child's needs.

    Private school directors regularly complain that districts are slow to provide information on children. For their part, special education officials admit that they were overwhelmed by the demand for the program and by the amount of work necessary to provide private schools with the information they need. In Pinellas County alone, some 500 parents expressed a desire to participate in the program.

    Public school educators worry about the effect the program can have on their planning and hiring. Parents can jump to a private school or return to a public school at virtually any time during the school year.

    "We're still trying to figure out how many kids we have and how many teachers we're going to need," said Pinellas County school Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "It's going to affect us, but it all depends on many (parents) take advantage of it."

    McKay dismisses many complaints as public school educators clinging to the status quo. But he acknowledged that the difficulties with planning are a legitimate complaint. He added, "There are going to be bumps in the road. But they're minor when compared with the ultimate gain, which is students being better served."

    Florida's McKay Scholarship Program still is overshadowed by the state's first voucher program for students from chronically failing schools. But that program has not grown since 1999, when 52 students from two Pensacola schools left their F-rated schools to attend private school.

    The McKay program is for any of the state's 340,000 students with disabilities. Thus far, the kinds of children who are taking McKay vouchers are those with learning disabilities.

    Despite its quick growth, the 2-year-old statewide McKay Scholarship Program still is considerably smaller than the Milwaukee voucher program, which includes more than 9,000 children. A voucher program in Cleveland includes about 4,000 children. Florida is expected to surpass the Cleveland program's numbers before long because the state's program enables students to sign up throughout the school year.

    The first checks were sent to schools this week, and must then be endorsed by parents. That will give the state its first clear picture of how many students are participating and at what cost. Last year, the state spent an average of $6,800 on each child, at a cost of about $6-million.

    Beyond an initial approval process that makes the private school eligible to accept the state checks, the state conducts no further oversight of the schools.

    When the first of four annual checks went out, Florida devoted $6.28-million to the program. If those checks are sent out each quarter as expected, the cost would be $25.138-million.

    Voucher advocates are quick to point out that the state is getting a bargain at many private schools. Under the voucher program, the state pays what it cost to educate the child in a public school, or the cost of tuition at the private school -- whichever is less.

    At the Yvonne Reed Christian School in St. Petersburg, tuition is $2,400. Even after fees and costs of tutoring are factored in, it adds up to much less than the cost of educating a special education child in a public school.

    At the DePaul School for Dyslexia in Clearwater, tuition is $6,800, so the state's voucher could come up short of the cost. The school has been in existence for 20 years. The head of the school, Mary Hercher, who has been at the school for 13 years, said she has welcomed the program but is worried about the sudden surge in private schools around the state.

    "I fear that some are jumping on the bandwagon and figuring on making some easy money," Hercher said. "That could ruin a good program."

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