New Times exposé forces McKay scholarship reform

What a difference three months make. 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, Kooi has been grilled on his program's flaws — which have resulted in massive amounts of fraud, negligible education, criminal administrators, dangerous schooling conditions, and unchecked corporal punishment — by House representatives in Tallahassee. "I read the article in the New Times, and I was frankly furious the state paid these fraudsters," Rep. Marty Kiar, a Democrat from Davie, told Kooi in an education subcommittee meeting last week. "That means that money given to these fraudsters is now not able to be used for children who really need it."

The representatives join a growing number of voices — including a Republican state senator who co-introduced the McKay program, as well as Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho — calling for reform of the program in the upcoming legislative session.

Even the Florida DOE has recommended oversight measures such as more stringent background checks for potential administrators of McKay schools and basic testing to ensure that students are learning something.

And Kooi, who oversees all DOE "choice" programs, including McKay and charters, has softened his tone as well. "We're always looking for ways to improve the program," he told New Times in an interview last week. Then he spoke candidly about the challenges of policing more than a thousand McKay schools. "We do rely on tips from parents. Frankly, even if the legislation was changed, we don't have the resources to visit each school in the state."

Change can't come fast enough. With the new school year, one troubled academy that New Times has already exposed — Homestead's Choice Preparatory School, which didn't even offer classes — received a McKay check for $40,000. Since 2007, the school has received $1.66 million, with nary a visit from the DOE.

"One of the difficulties," Kooi admits, "is that we really can't look into the quality of education provided by McKay schools."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts