McKay's 'bad apple'?
© St. Petersburg Times,
Senate President John McKay, for whom Florida's voucher program for disabled students was named, says "appropriate actions will be taken" if abuse occurred at a St. Petersburg school created this year to accept tax money. But his boilerplate response about the role of private schools and parental choice suggests the word "appropriate" was carefully chosen.
As to whether the state will try to account for the $25-million being spent this year in his name, McKay offers only a platitude: "In my view, public funds do not belong to public schools -- they belong to the public." Does that mean he doesn't care if the money is properly spent?
The "public" money in the case of Bethel Metropolitan Christian Academy in St. Petersburg has been signed over to one woman, Angel Rocker of Navarre Beach. Rocker, who now operates six schools that enroll only voucher students, is in line to receive $2.3-million in state money this year. She is a Republican Party activist who has refused to answer most public questions, who has labeled the Bethel church pastor "a disgruntled employee," and who wrote a letter arguing that "an attack against the voucher program is a terrorist attack against black children" and denouncing her critics as "grand marshals of the KKK." Her schools serve one of every eight McKay voucher students in Florida.
The questions raised by Rocker and Bethel Academy are not questions about whether public schools or private schools better serve disabled students or whether parents should be offered such options in the first place. The question here is whether tax money is being wasted, and no one seems to know the answer.
The McKay law requires that parents sign over each quarterly voucher check to the school, but the state Department of Education ignored that law and allowed Rocker to sign the checks herself -- through power of attorney -- for students who may no longer attend the schools. The law also requires the state to pay the lower of two amounts, the private tuition or public reimbursement formula, but that provision is meaningless in a school with no private students (Rocker claimed a tuition of $17,310). The reimbursement formula is based on public schools that are required by law to employ certified teachers with college degrees, but the McKay law allows voucher schools to employ teachers without high school diplomas. DOE also ignored another requirement in the law -- that all applications for vouchers be submitted at least 60 days prior to the start of school -- after McKay wrote a letter mentioning his "personal interest."
In defense of his program, McKay argues that Bethel could just be "a bad apple." But the truth is that neither he nor DOE has any idea what the state is getting for its $25-million investment. They don't know how many of the voucher-eligible schools were created overnight or how many are fueled solely by vouchers. They just know that they are encouraging parents to consider the option, and they are advertising all the alternative schools as state "approved." Call it buyer beware, except that the buyer in this case is a student with educational disabilities and the seller is the state of Florida.
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