McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos

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There is no accreditation requirement for McKay schools. And without curriculum regulations, the DOE can't yank back its money if students are discovered to be spending their days filling out workbooks, watching B-movies, or frolicking in the park. In one "business management" class, students shook cans for coins on street corners.

And public schools now apparently help with the recruiting. Failing kids, who would sabotage all-important standardized testing scores, are herded en masse to dubious McKay schools.

The McKay fund is not the only cash cow that unregulated schools can dip into. There's also the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which gives tax breaks to corporations in return for private school scholarships. With Gov. Rick Scott pushing privatization of education in all forms, legislation that passed in May is set to skyrocket both programs.

The tax-credit fund saw its cap increased by $30 million to $175 million, while the McKay program could nearly quadruple. Thanks to the amended law, a kid with a peanut allergy could now find himself eligible for a scholarship created for students with learning and physical disabilities.

New Times shared findings from this investigation with state Sen. Stephen R. Wise (R-Jacksonville), one of the co-introducers of the McKay program in 1999. "It's appalling," Wise says. "I'm amazed that there's not more scrutiny about where the money is going."

"After I get done with you," he tells a reporter, "I need to talk to my staff director. We need to have some hearings and do whatever we can to make some changes."

According to Republican lore, it started with a senator's child and a nun.

In the mid-'90s, state Sen. John M. McKay (R-Bradenton) struggled to find a proper school for his daughter, who had a learning disability.

"I called every public school in my district," McKay, who has since retired from office, tells New Times. He ended up sending her to Dreams Are Free, an idyllic, specialized school in Sarasota run by Sister Gilchrist Cottrill.

McKay's epiphany: Create tuition vouchers so that all Florida children with special needs could go to schools like Sister Gilchrist's. As senate president in 1999, he tacked his namesake program to Gov. Jeb Bush's fledgling A+ Plan for Education, a voucher program paying private school tuition for students from poorly performing public school districts.

Two years later, Republican lawmakers passed the Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income kids, which offers a smaller tuition cap — currently $4,106 — but is available for more students.

The add-ons were politically shrewd. Bush's program was hugely divisive and, as it turns out, doomed. In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that the A+ Plan was unconstitutional and a drain on public school coffers. But the McKay and Tax Credit scholarships chugged onward.

To be eligible for a McKay voucher in the early days, a student would have had to qualify for an individual education program (IEP) — which encompasses conditions ranging from attention disorders and autism to physical disabilities — and be failing in public schools. The latter requirement was eventually scrapped by legislators. A cap limiting the number of McKay kids per district was also tossed.

Today, students with an IEP are required only to spend at least one year in a public school to qualify for the McKay program. But even in that, there is fraud. In June 2010, Deborah Swirsky-Nuñez, a special-education supervisor in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and wife of region superintendent George Nuñez, was arrested for playing a sort of three-card monte with the McKay system in order to have her two kids' private school tuition paid by the state.

According to investigators, Swirsky-Nuñez fabricated address records. She falsely enrolled the children at the public Dr. Michael M. Krop High even though they attended Plantation's American Heritage Private School. And she used her sway with test administrators to rig her kids' performance on the IEP exam, securing a combined $19,000 annually in McKay payments.

At least seven others, including her husband George, were implicated, but only Swirsky-Nuñez was charged with organized fraud. She has pleaded not guilty, and her trial will begin in October. Krop's principal, Matthew Welker, was suspended for 30 days for alleged complicity in the scheme.

The recent expansion of the McKay program should only make it easier to milk the system. The new law, which last month easily passed the Florida House and Senate and was signed by Governor Scott, makes students with "504 plans" — special accommodations for physical impairments — eligible as well.

That includes asthma and allergies to anything from peanuts to bee stings, says Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, who argues that the expansion is "undermining the validity of the program."

An additional 52,000 students will be eligible, almost quadrupling the pool.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts