Five months ago, Miami New Times exposed a taxpayer-funded voucher program that, even on the overblown Floridian scale of dysfunction, is a stunning boondoggle. Students who receive the John M. McKay Scholarship for disabled students are taught in public parks or not at all, the story showed. Administrators and teachers at schools given millions by the program have rap sheets that include cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary. Kids in these schools are even sometimes paddled, a tactic outlawed in most Florida counties. Fraud is rampant.

Yet over the past 12-plus school years, the state has tossed more than a billion dollars — including $150 million in the past year — at the McKay program.

Now, finally, Tallahassee is taking up reform. Last week, Florida Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, recommended measures — including regular site visits to schools and verified background checks of faculty — that would address the McKay program's most egregious flaws. "The Department of Education (DOE) seemed to think that this isn't a very big deal, but I think it's a huge deal," Kriseman says. "When I read [New Times' investigation], I was aghast."

The story — "Rotten to the Core," published June 23 — gained the attention of prominent educators and politicians throughout the state. Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the McKay mess "heartbreaking." Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who originally co-sponsored the program, declared our findings "appalling... I'm amazed that there's not more scrutiny about where the money is going." The program's progenitor, former Florida Senate President McKay, a Republican from Bradenton, concluded: "Somebody better get off their ass and fix those problems."

McKay was inspired to create his namesake program in 1999 after struggling to find an appropriate school for his learning-disabled daughter. The idea: provide state-paid tuition vouchers for disabled children to receive specialized education at private schools. The proposal was attached to legislation for Gov. Jeb Bush's polarizing A+ Plan for Education, a voucher system for students from failing public school districts.

In the next several years, limitations on the McKay scholarship's scope — such as a requirement students be failing in public schools and a cap on the number of eligible kids per county — were gradually removed by Republican legislators.

In 2006, the state Supreme Court declared Bush's voucher program unconstitutional and a drain on public schools. But the McKay fund, which was left intact, boomed by nearly 40 percent. Today, more than 20,000 students attend just under 1,000 McKay-eligible schools, two-thirds of which are religious. Miami-Dade County leads the state in McKay spending, with 151 private schools here receiving $31.8 million — more than 20 percent of the entire fund — in the fiscal year ending last June. Since inception, the program has cost Floridians upward of $1.08 billion.

In a two-month investigation, New Times uncovered a McKay-funded cottage industry of fly-by-night schools operating in storefronts, churches, and dingy homes. Students spent entire school days filling out workbooks or hanging out in a gymnasium watching television. One class — which an Oakland Park principal had the gall to call "business management" — consisted of shaking cans on street corners.

Because the schools are private — although accepting publicly funded vouchers — the DOE is not allowed to monitor curriculum. For the same reason, the department claims it can't bar corporal punishment, despite parents' complaints that children are being paddled.

State law allows the DOE only three routine site visits total each year, ensuring that roughly 99.7 percent of McKay schools aren't checked by the agency sending them checks.

The results have been predictably catastrophic, including "schools" that don't actually exist receiving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, or being held in dangerous locations that are ultimately closed not by the state, but by fire marshals.

Since the program's implementation, the DOE has investigated 38 McKay schools, and in 25 of those cases "substantiated" claims of fraud. More than $50 million has been funneled to those schools. The true scope of fraud is likely exponentially larger.

Many of the administrators who had orchestrated the fraud were allowed to continue receiving McKay funds. Only three cases reviewed by New Times resulted in arrests.

Worse, this past summer, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill approved by the Legislature for an expansion of the McKay program that circumvented the court and essentially revitalized Bush's voucher plan. Students with minor medical problems — including allergies to peanuts and bee stings — became eligible for McKay funds. Already, 883 additional students have enrolled in the program. Another 51,000 are now eligible.

But change appears to be finally coming from many directions. In October, members of the Florida House K-20 Innovation Subcommittee demanded answers from Michael Kooi, the DOE honcho paid $110,000 annually to oversee programs including McKay and charter schools. "I read the article in the New Times, and I was frankly furious the state paid these fraudsters," railed Rep. Marty Kiar, a Democrat from Davie. "That means that money... is now not able to be used for children who really need it."

In September, the State Board of Education proposed, as a "legislative priority" in the upcoming session, a "school accountability bill" that would strengthen background checks for operators of McKay-eligible schools. It would also implement minimal standardized testing and auditing in the schools. Lobbying to "beef up accountability" will also be on the Miami-Dade School Board's agenda in the legislative session, Superintendent Carvalho told New Times in October.

On November 29, Rep.Kriseman took the boldest step yet, sending a letter to the K-20 Innovation Subcommittee's chair, Rep. Kelli Stargel, urging nine basic measures to increase oversight of the McKay program.

Among Kriseman's recommendations: Every new McKay location would receive a site visit, faculty background checks would be verified by the state, accreditation and teacher certification would be required, there would be minimal curriculum monitoring, and those who commit fraud would be subject to stricter prison sentences. "It is my hope that none of us will ever have to read stories again," Kriseman declared, "about scammers and rip-off artists bilking precious dollars that should be spent on educating our most vulnerable children."

The easiest way for the bill to become law is with the support of Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who's already balking at one aspect of the recommendations. "I wouldn't want to mandate to a private school what their curriculum is going to be," she recently told The Florida Current.

"If there's enough pressure put on the chair," says Kriseman, "these changes will happen quickly."

Rep. Stargel's email address, if you happen to be wondering, is kelli.stargel@myfloridahouse.gov. Her office number is 850-488-2270.

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12 comments
Conniemulvihill
Conniemulvihill

Public Schools would be the best way to educate disabled students if they received the funding they should be getting. I am strongly against my tax dollars going to private & religious schools. Giving parents vouchers which means funds taken from public schools & ending up in non brick and mortor schools & private & religious schools is unconstitutional

debbieqd
debbieqd

It is just sickening the way Republicans love socialism for themselves. Mr. McKay has a learning disabled daughter. He doesn't want to pay for her needs. So, he'll pass a law to get every Florida citizen to pay! He tells his friends what he accomplished. They want the money, too -- and on and on and on. This is the breaking of America one stab wound at a time.

I'm not against helping learning disabled students and I'm happy to pay to be sure they get what they need in a PUBLIC SCHOOL. I just don't ever want to hear these thugs call President Obama a socialist again. These same jokers socialized insurance for their friends at the beach with Citizens, too. Republican socialists -- now, there's a fact.

Allisonhertog
Allisonhertog

While the program needs greater oversight and certain schools take advantage of the lack thereof, Mckay scholarships help thousands disabled students become contributing members of society when the public system has failed them.

Flagdecal
Flagdecal

The McKay Scholarship exists for three reasons: To help in the destruction of public schools, and to undermine and destroy teachers associations. and lastly, to publicly fund religious education, that is, Christian education. The failure of the McKay is the premise it was founded on, to destroy and educational system, not improve it. Now, under a one party system, it has ruined the education of many who can't stand up for themselves, and is contributing to the destruction of public education in Florida. Eventually, the voters in Florida will have to face the responsibility of the damage they have done.

mkbeev
mkbeev

@Conniemulvihill 

If they would have done an ok job when they had the funding, Mkcay would not exist today.

mkbeev
mkbeev

@debbieqd 

I pray that you never have a disabled child in your life. I am pretty sure you would let your child sit thru school clueless his entire life.

mkbeev
mkbeev

@Flagdecal 

You must be Athiest.

Freddy
Freddy

Ruining the public education system? I'm sorry, public schools that had bloated budgets 10 years ago thought it appropriate to have 30 ESE students in the same classroom with such a wide variety of disabilities none of them learned. You had students with ADD sitting in a room with individuals on the Autistic spectrum. The public school systems don't need any help being ruined, they need to figure out how to manage individual student needs instead of a one size fits all approach. Money does not fix education. If you believe that, figure out how Washington D.C. spends over $16K per pupil (high in the nation) but ranks lower in results. And you might want to get off the high horse, there are thousands of private schools that are: not religious in any nature; religious but for a denomination other than Christian. The parents get the McKay funding, who then decide what school, not the other way around. Oversight needed? Sure, but if anyone really thinks that those running the "so successful" public school system should be telling those in the private sector how to do their job...good luck.

mkbeev
mkbeev

@debbieqd 

Speek to thousands of parents who have had there children participate in the program. Why do you proof to us parents why it doesn't work.

Flagdecal
Flagdecal

No need to apologize, Freddy. Your talking ponts sound like you got them from chuch or from Newt. All public schools are under a mandate to provide a least restrictrive environment for their special education students. ADD, ADHD are not considered special education. They are placed with the general school population. Autistism is a syndrome, not necessarily a developmental delay. I have taught Aspergers and Autistic with general ed students and it is fine. These students are not stupid or out of control. On the contrary, they have special talents and strengths that an experienced teacher will allow to blossom.You are wrong in the assumption that public schools are ruined. I have worked with some fine teachers in some fine programs. And it is not about 'throwing money at public schools. It's about taking money away from them in a concerted effort to destroy them. The article stated that the majority of private schools that get McKay money are religious affiliated schools. I personally know this to be true. I have also seen the students shuffle offf to private school on a McKay only to shuffle back in to the public school two weeks later because they couldn't handle them. Private school gets to keep the money, public school gets none for that child for the school year. Florida gets around $5,000. per student, not $16,000 that you punched in as an example from your rhetoric.By the way, I still teach, am damn good, and don't rely on luck to make my school successful.Keep trying though, Florida is the perfect place to peddle misinformation.

mkbeev
mkbeev

@Flagdecal 

Although I am not doubting that you may very well be a wonderful teacher, my experience with the public school system and my disabled child was not a very good one. Yes they provide the least restrictive environment when they can, they never go the extra mile or attempt anything out of their comfort zone. I do not blame them the system has so many rules that it is hard for any teacher to do anything extraordinary. I was met with screaming teachers and uncontrollable classrooms. Getting a one on one was next to impossible and would take forever according to the IEP team, getting the psych educational would take another year because of the system and lack of funds. You know the teachers, the district, the school might have a year to waste in their life but my son doesn't. Every second is important. The Mckay was a blessing in our life and although the private school setting might not be 100 percent perfect, he does have his 12 hours of therapy when in school he was getting 1. Under federal law the students have a right to this and in all actuality the State receives the funds based on student population and disabled population. Yes they do have more benefits than typical students but they need it. We can sit and criticize the parents, the system and even the teachers but the reality is there are many things that the public school cannot provide, it is over flowed and over worked. Each teacher is different, I ended up pulling my daughter from public school as well because her teachers were so rude and she is dyslexic and the school wouldn't recognize it until there evaluations were done. Eleven months waiting on the school to do what they had to do, I changed her and she is an honor roll student, with an above average IQ that needed the extra help and struggled but did not receive it in public school. The school representatives are very important and although I live in a very good area, our principle sucks.  

 
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