Thursday, July 14, 2011

Special Needs Vouchers in Florida: "Like a Perverse Science Experiment"

Here is how a recent article in the Miami New Times described Florida's McKay Special Needs Scholarship program:
It's like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash: Dole out millions to anybody calling himself an educator. Don't regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.
Except that description isn't fair to science experiments, in the absence of an attempt to create a hypothesis capable of being tested, or to collect meaningful data.

The article, titled "McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos," tells a very different side of the story than the glowing voucher-advocate reports that are being used to promote similar legislation in Wisconsin.
The program works like this: any public school student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) may enroll in a private school using taxpayer dollars that would have been spent for their public-school education. Public schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Unfortunately, the private schools have no such requirement. They don't have to provide anything, or have so much as a single special-educator or therapist on staff. Not even when they're taking students funded with taxpayer dollars.

In Florida, according to the Miami New Times article, getting in on the McKay money is ridiculously simple:
Registering a private school is as easy as filing minimal start-up paperwork. Becoming eligible to receive McKay payments isn't much tougher and relies mostly on the honor system: You must claim to have a location, promise to run background checks on staffers, and either have been in business for three years or have access to a surety loan or line of credit.
These astonishingly loose conditions are followed up with an almost total lack of accountability, allowing fraud to flourish. In the 12 years since the program was introduced, there have been 39 Department of Education investigations in McKay voucher fraud, only 3 of which have resulted in arrest. Far from being an accolade for the quality of the program, it's an indictment of the lax oversight: the department rarely looks for trouble unless someone -- often "an associate with an axe to grind" according to the Miami New Times article -- files a report. Former Florida DOE investigator Seth Stoughton, specializing in voucher fraud, told the New Times that the most proactive his investigations ever got was driving around with an address list of McKay schools to make sure that schools actually existed at those addresses. He claimed that the DOE failed to uncover "even a significant fraction" of the existing fraud.

A couple of examples via the New Times of the fraud that was revealed:
- The most common caper involves simple forgery: school administrators doctoring attendance records and signing parents' names to show that students are enrolled when they're actually not. Jacksonville's Success Academy — which received $4.8 million — was likely the largest such case. From 2001 through 2005, the school accepted $421,000 for 52 students who were enrolled in public schools.

- At Muskateer's Academy in Hialeah (Stoughton says of the name: "I think they just had no idea how to spell"), husband and wife school owners Jacqueline and Erick Cermeno were indicted for stealing several students' disability information to falsely enroll them and pocket thousands in tuition. Muskateer's received $794,000 from the state.
But outright criminality is only one of the problems among schools accepting McKay vouchers. Since the curricula and teachers and locations are essentially unregulated, it leads to situations like the following at South Florida Prep:
Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the "campus" as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976 Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick — Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting "mother nature" — a woman's period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. "We had no materials," says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. "There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum."
Not only are desperately substandard schools receiving taxpayer money, the public schools appear to be actively pushing high school seniors out the door and into McKay schools before they have to take the all-important FCAT exam:

Beginning a few school years ago, Carol City Senior High social studies teacher Paul Moore was mystified by a new, perennial exodus of his "problem" seniors — students who might fare badly on FCATs. They were kids he usually liked to have one last-ditch shot at improving their studies.

Eventually, he figured out where many of them had ended up: Parkway Academy in Miramar, a charter school and target in 2009 of the Florida High School Athletic Association's largest fine — $260,000; later reduced to $118,000 — for dozens of football recruiting violations. Other of Moore's missing seniors had scattered to private schools, most of them McKay-funded. "It's an absolute policy in this state now to move at-risk kids to charter or private schools," Moore says.... The illicit practice even has a name: "FCAT cleansing."
I'll let you read the article itself to learn about how new McKay start-ups go recruiting in economically-disadvantaged urban areas, and how the program is set to expand.

You can bet that the proponents of the Special Needs Scholarship legislation that has cropped up in Wisconsin and elsewhere are not acknowledging these abuses in their materials (for example on this site pushing the Wisconsin version of the bill). I'm perfectly willing to be fairer than that and acknowledge that there are families who had bad experiences in the public schools, who have been able to use these vouchers to move into better private-school situations.

Priority number one, though, should be to FIX the public schools for students with special needs, rather than diverting their funding. And why in the world would Wisconsin want to open the door to the abuses that have become evident in Florida? As a press release from the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations puts it, "This is not what we want for Wisconsin students with disabilities!"
Current voucher proposals on the table in Wisconsin, which have been crafted without the support of any established statewide disability organization, do not include formal oversight or accountability to families or students. There is no guarantee that a child will receive the required and individualized services they have a right to in the public school. At the same time, voucher programs are expected to drain resources from already strapped public schools which are trying to serve special education students with research-based practices.

The Special Needs Scholarship Program bill in Wisconsin, AB110, which had a public committee-hearing this spring, will receive a new legislative push in the fall. I invite friends of Elvis Sightings to join me in opposing this deeply-flawed legislation -- for the sake of Rose and Joy, and so many others like them!


Anonymous said...

wow. i've heard of states with this kind of legislation and from what little i knew it sounded like a great plan. the abuses in FL are appalling, scary - i had no idea. my heart aches for children suffering under such programs.

JoyMama said...

rhemashope -- there are some very well-heeled organizations out there whose sole mission is to make these kinds of programs sound great. The drafts of the laws are written by corporations with no input from families or disability organizations; and the end game is to move as much taxpayer money from public (non-profit) to private (profit-making) entities as possible.

Some families do benefit along the way -- the testimonials are real -- but the damage to others who get caught in the fraud or remain behind in the weakened public schools is devastating.

If only we would fund our educational system properly!

OK, off my soapbox. I know I've been mightily political here lately -- I only do it because there's so very much at stake! Hugs to you and your amazing daughters.