Florida's Disability Voucher Program Fails to Protect Interests of Students, Parents and Taxpayers

Cited as Model for IDEA Reform, Florida’s McKay Program Rife With Stories of Financial Abuse, Compromised Services

WASHINGTON – In the next several weeks, there will be major efforts in the House and/or Senate to amend the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to include private-school vouchers. The relatively unknown Florida McKay voucher law is the model for this pro-voucher effort in Congress, as well as for voucher bills in at least four states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii and Oklahoma. One of the McKay law’s most enthusiastic promoters has dubbed the program the “Florida Miracle.” Yet a report released today debunks this myth, raising serious concerns about financial abuse and the law’s impact on parents’ rights, special education services and public schools.

The new report, Jeopardizing a Legacy: A Closer Look at IDEA and Florida’s Disability Voucher Program, is co-authored by People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF). The report examines the three-year experience of the McKay vouchers and concludes that the Florida program “is an Educational Edsel—a cynical ‘model’ that would only lead the nation’s parents, students and teachers down a dangerous path.”

Jeopardizing a Legacy notes that the program sacrifices key legal rights that parents would otherwise have under IDEA, lacks financial or academic accountability to parents and taxpayers, and drains critical funds from public schools. Click here to read the report online.

IDEA guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to every student with a disability. But the future of this commitment, covering 6.5 million children, will be shaped directly by the course of reform. Last summer, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education recommended that IDEA be reauthorized with a private-school voucher provision. Last month, Education Secretary Rod Paige embraced this recommendation. Many voucher supporters have cited Florida’s McKay program as a model for IDEA. As Jeopardizing a Legacy explains, however, McKay vouchers have drained millions of tax dollars from public schools, undermined the rights of parents and failed to hold private schools accountable. Leaders of the organizations that co-authored the report echoed many of the concerns raised by Jeopardizing a Legacy.

“Florida officials have taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the McKay vouchers, and we’re seeing the serious consequences that this lack of oversight is having on children with disabilities,” said PFAWF President Ralph G. Neas.

“Voucher programs offer just one more way for public schools to exclude and fail to serve students with disabilities,” said Arlene B. Mayerson, Directing Attorney for DREDF. “Rather than being empowered with choices, parents will once again find themselves with no place to turn to get an appropriate education for their children.”

Among the key findings from Jeopardizing a Legacy are:

  • The McKay program contains flimsy standards for participating private schools. While Florida grades its public schools based on a strict set of standards and ties funding to these grades, private schools receiving tax dollars through McKay are not graded, not obligated to hire certified staff, and not required to test all special education students. For-profit schools that accept vouchers may be encouraged to hire the least costly staff.
  • Even though they receive public tax dollars, McKay private schools are not being held accountable to parents and taxpayers. A number of McKay schools have been accused of falsifying state applications, failing to provide needed therapy and other student services, or committing other misdeeds. One McKay school, for example, changed its address at least four times during the school year and was cited for safety and health code violations.
  • Parents who accept McKay vouchers effectively sacrifice critical rights and services that are guaranteed by IDEA. While parents can take legal action against a public school to uphold these rights and services, participating McKay private schools are not required to abide by IDEA rules ensuring parents’ due process rights, appropriate evaluations of students, and other rights. Incredibly, even though a student must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to be eligible for McKay vouchers, the private school that accepts such a student is not required to follow the terms of the student’s IEP—even though the U.S. Department of Education has called an IEP “the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.”
  • The parental “choice” touted by McKay supporters is significantly limited by a variety of factors. Under McKay, participating private schools are free to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, or type of disability. Private school options also depend largely on where a family happens to reside. One out of three Florida counties have no more than a single, approved participating private school. Finally, tuition and other fees can limit choice. Last school year, more than eight out of 10 McKay parents had to pay some out-of-pocket amount to private schools that wasn’t covered by their vouchers.
  • McKay vouchers drain critical funds from public schools. The program’s costs have escalated rapidly and have financially punished Florida public schools. McKay’s costs are expected to reach an estimated $56 million this year, more than the program cost during its first three years combined. About 9,000 students with disabilities are participating in the McKay program this school year.

    Parents of Florida’s 350,000 students with disabilities who currently attend public schools are eligible to apply for a McKay voucher. The size of this market has spawned a number of new private schools that have been created virtually overnight to gain access to state tax dollars through McKay. The state knows very little about the nearly 550 private schools that are eligible to receive voucher payments.

    According to Jeopardizing a Legacy, some groups advocating special education vouchers for IDEA or other states may be driven by other goals. These organizations have attacked the cost of special education or cited vouchers as a way to cut or limit costs. One pro-voucher group has even urged states to refuse IDEA funding as a way to get around the law’s mandates. While backers of disability vouchers have pointed to the need for more parental “choice,” a nonpartisan Public Agenda survey found last year that nearly seven out of 10 parents reported that public school teachers and other staff offered “real choices and options for my child.”

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