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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her office number is 850-488-2270.