From the Current
by Gray Rohrer
In response to an expose from the Miami New Times this summer detailing abuses of the John M. McKay Scholarship funds, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, is pushing for greater oversight of the program.
The ranking Democrat on the House K-20 Innovation Subcommittee sent a letter Tuesday to its chair, Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, recommending the stricter oversight and accountability measures.
The McKay scholarships were set up in 2005 and designed to go towards private school tuition for physically and mentally disabled students. Since then, Florida has spent more than $911 million on the scholarships. In the 2010-2011 school year, 22,198 students took advantage of $148.6 million in private tuition provided by the program.
But the Miami New Times article tells the story of South Florida Prep, which received more than $2 million between 2006 and 2010, where classrooms convened in a run-down strip mall, music classes were taught without instruments, and a school administrator used corporal punishment to discipline pupils. The state, however, can do little to prevent the abuses because the schools are private: There Department of Education does not initiate investigations of schools and only conducts site visits after complaints from parents or others. There are no curricula requirements and the DOE merely asks that school administators conduct background checks on employees but does not perform background checks on administrators in the first place.
In his letter, Kriseman suggests mandatory site visits, Department of Education background checks of personnel at private institutions receiving McKay funding, requiring accreditation and minimum curriculum standards, allowing the DOE and school districts to initiate investigations of schools, and prohibiting corporal punishment at schools receiving the scholarships.
“Along with several subcommittee members, I am troubled by news accounts detailing cases of abuse and fraud due to an apparent lack of accountability in this voucher program. The Legislature must do everything it can to make sure that children who receive McKay Scholarships to attend private schools get the highest quality education possible,” Kriseman’s letter reads. He also stated that his suggestions were on behalf of all Democrats on the subcommittee.
His suggestions, however, may not get past the discussion phase. Stargel said Tuesday that although she is open to the recommendations, she’s reluctant to dictate the operations of private schools, even if they receive state funding.
“You’re dealing with private schools. I wouldn’t want to mandate to a private school what their curriculum is going to be,” Stargel said.
She added that parents provide the state’s best measure of accountability, because they can remove their children from the school if it is inadequate, but also wants to eliminate fraud from the scholarship program. The Miami New Times article noted incidents of private school administrators forging documents to pad their enrollment stats in order to receive more money.
“I am all about making sure that we prevent fraud,” Stargel said.