Florida School Choice Honcho Says We Should Be "Ashamed" Of Our McKay Scholarship Story

Last week, New Times published "Rotten to the Core", a cover story exposing the Florida Department of Education's failure to properly oversee schools receiving money from the McKay Scholarship, a state voucher program paying private school tuition for disabled students.

The consequences, as I reported: corporal punishment in schools, dangerous class settings, negligible education, and fraud galore.

Michael D. Kooi, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, the DOE wing which oversees the McKay program, didn't appreciate my criticism.

I could footnote the hell out of the letter Kooi sent us, which I believe is plagued by semantics. Instead, I'll just note that his assertion that I "never asked to speak to DOE staff charged with oversight of the McKay program" is false.

I made multiple requests for comment to the DOE. The agency rebutted some of my facts and suggested changes, but never provided me with a human to quote. Perhaps my requests didn't make it to Kooi's desk.

The Miami New Times should be ashamed of its June 23 article about the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The article seems to go out of its way to present half-truths, twisted facts and misinformation in an almost reckless abandon. Uncovering and reporting factual, researched news is one thing, but sensationalizing and telling only one side of a story seems like back alley journalism run-amok.

For starters, the article repeatedly misrepresents isolated incidents as full-blown epidemics in an obvious attempt to overshadow a program that has been in existence in the State of Florida since 1999, and currently allows more than 22,000 students and their parents the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their special needs students. While it is true that some unethical individuals have made efforts to take advantage of the program for their own personal gain, the Department of Education (DOE) has actively exercised its authority to locate and punish these individuals, recoup taxpayer funds and stop funding schools in violation of the law. Curiously, the article in question fails to provide that information, even though the DOE made this information available to the New Times prior to it being published.

It's also clear that the article's author is woefully uneducated about the DOE's oversight as it relates to scholarship-recipient private schools - an understandable byproduct given the fact that he never asked to speak to DOE staff charged with oversight of the McKay program. Had he spoken with them, he would have learned that these schools are required to annually attest to accountability provisions contained in Section 1002.421, Florida Statutes, and failure to do so is an automatic removal from the program for a year. He also would have learned that although site visits to McKay Scholarship schools are limited to three per year, the DOE has developed strong relationships with other agencies such as local health and fire departments as well as state entities such as the Department of Health, Department of Children and Families and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These relationships provide an additional layer of oversight that is crucial in the absence of a physical DOE presence in each school district.

Lastly, I take issue with the article's assertion that participating McKay private schools are funded by taxpayer cash. It should have explained that these scholarships are awarded to parents of eligible special needs students who then choose a private school, not the other way around. This means that the parents of these students restrictively endorse the scholarship check to an eligible private school of their choosing, effectively creating the educational choice that every parent deserves. The article should have been clearer that these scholarships are for parents and students, not private schools.

I truly hope that future articles from the New Times are able to achieve a higher level of accuracy and balance, even if it means sacrificing the exaggeration and tabloid antics they believe win them additional readers. This is a very beneficial program, and in spite of the small fraction of schools that sometimes fail to comply with its requirements, the vast majority of these schools continue to provide quality educational opportunities for Florida's special needs students.

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