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Michael Kooi, Head of Fraud-Plagued McKay Scholarship Program, Talks to Riptide About Reform

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What a difference three months makes. In July, after New Times published a feature exposing a disastrous lack of oversight in a $150-million-a-year taxpayer-funded voucher program for disabled kids, Florida Department of Education honcho Michael Kooi said this newspaper "should be ashamed" of its reporting.

Now, after getting grilled by House Representatives amid a growing number of high-ranking voices calling for change in the program, Kooi himself is joining the Florida Board of Education in recommending more oversight measures be added in the upcoming legislature.

The board is calling for more stringent background checks and basic audits to ensure that students are learning something. The measures don't address all of the programs flaws-- most notably the inability to pay any significant number of site visits to McKay schools-- but hey: baby steps.

Last week, Riptide was able to interview Kooi for the first time. Here's the transcript of our chat, edited for brevity.

New Times: After we first published our story on McKay, you called it "back alley journalism run amok." Your tone seems to have softened.

Michael Kooi: Yes, I think that's true. Look, we're always looking for ways to improve the program, whether that insight comes from parents or from you. That's why the state board has recommended that we make these changes. McKay is a really great program that gives an education to 22,000 kids. Sometimes in these news stories that uncover flaws, those good aspects can get lost, and I didn't want to see that happen.

In your remarks to the House reps, you said that most of the problem schools exposed in our story were closed. Were you saying that they were closed as a result of the story, or were already closed when we reported it?

Well, the DOE doesn't have the power to close any schools. What we can do is withdraw them from the McKay program. So I hope I didn't give the impression that we could close schools. But yes, my understanding is that most of the problem schools you wrote about were no longer in the Mckay program. In many cases there were minor infractions--a lot of them certainly weren't minor--but in those cases, the schools might have remained in the McKay program.

In fact, a good amount of the schools we wrote about were still in operation. And in a follow-up published later, we showed that of 25 schools shown to have committed fraud, approximately 11 were still receiving McKay money. Why are school administrators who have defrauded the state allowed to continue receiving McKay funds?

First off, I don't know about the accuracy of those numbers. But I know that in some cases, when a school has made an effort and gotten rid of the administrators involved in the fraud, we have allowed them to remain in the McKay program.

Here's a very recent example. Choice Preparatory School's administrators have now been shown to have committed McKay fraud in two different schools-- Choice Prep and Center of Life Academy. They were allowed to repay the money both times. A Florida High School Athletic Association visited the school and found no evidence of classes going on, so they were barred from competition. Yet just last month, Choice Prep received $40,000 in McKay funds for the upcoming school year.

I certainly don't want to see money going to a school that is fraudulent. The Choice Prep case happened in 2006, before I took my position. But my understanding was that the decision was made to allow them to continue in the program after the school cleared out the bad actors. If you or the FHSAA or anybody else has information on cases of fraud, we always welcome you sharing it with us. If there's no education going on at this school, that's obviously something that concerns us. But one of the difficulties is that we really can't look into the quality of education.

[Editor's note: Kooi later emailed to clarify that Choice was investigated by the DOE in 2008, when we was in fact in office. He added that the resulting report "did not state that the school was guilty of fraud", but that Choice had "unjustly received" funding for two students who were actually incarcerated at the time.]

As head of the McKay program, what changes would you like to see in the upcoming legislation?

Well, I wouldn't want anything beyond the State Board's package of recommendations.

Tell me about the audit requirements the State Board is recommending.

They're recommending the same sort of testing that is given in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The tests would only be required in schools of thirty students or more. Schools that have more than thirty kids, their aggregate test scores would be sent to an independent reviewer. You have to be very careful with testing, especially in the McKay program, because a lot of these students have learning disabilities. They left public schools for a reason. So it takes some creative thinking to figure out how to make testing work in the McKay program.

Why doesn't the state conduct its own background checks of potential McKay administrators?

The easy answer is because that's not in the legislation. The legislation specifies that the administrators of the school should run their own background checks. There's reasoning behind that legislation, and I think one of the main reasons is cost. The idea is that since the schools want to be a part of the McKay program, they should take care of their own background checks.

But then it kind of boils down to the honor system.

In a way. But it should be noted that if we receive a tip about something going on at a school, we can and have demanded that they submit their background check materials.

Is three site visits to McKay schools a year--and ten overall to "Choice" schools--enough?

Expanding that number is not part of the state board's package of recommendations. Look, we do rely on tips from parents and the like, and perhaps raising that number should be something that's discussed. Frankly, we don't have enough resources to visit each McKay school in the state.

Also in your remarks to the House, you-- and a Republican representative-- made the point that parents "vote with their feet" when it comes to bad McKay schools. But in situations when the students' guardians aren't making the right decisions, should that burden fall on the Florida taxpayer?

I think 99-percent of the time, the parent is in the best position to choose what's best for their kid in the McKay program. However, I think that you are right that there are some situations where the parents might no be sophisticated enough, and I think that's the reason the state board made the recommendations it did.

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