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Florida Special Ed Voucher Plan 'Seriously Flawed'

An independent education think tank has released a report describing Florida's special education voucher program as "seriously flawed."

The report by researcher Sara Mead and released by Education Sector faults Florida's McKay Scholarships for failing to measure student performance or require participating private schools to provide special education services.

Mead's report concludes it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

There's No Proof Tax Money Is Not Being Wasted

The report explains, "Essentially, all a private school has to do to receive McKay vouchers is to sign up. Schools participating in the McKay program do not have to be accredited…they do not have to provide any evidence of the quality of their programs or student achievement…Taxpayers have no evidence that their money is not being wasted."

The Tampa Tribune quotes Andrew J. Rotherham, Education Sector Co-founder and Co-director, as saying, "The big surprise is that problems that have been recognized in the past still persist."

The Tampa Tribune article also reports, "McKay was chosen for the Education Sector study because other states are starting or considering similar programs, Rotherham said.

"'McKay is basically the model and also the largest,' he said. 'States more often than not repeat the mistakes other states make.'"

Parents Don't Have Enough Information to Make Good Choices

Although Mead finds no evidence that participating private schools are "skimming" students with the least severe disabilities, because students are generally represented in similar rates as exist among the public school special education population, she does note one exception. The number of McKay students diagnosed with ADD and ADHD is 2.5 times greater than among the state's total special education population. There is anecdotal evidence that parents seek this diagnosis simply to secure a voucher.

Mead denies that parents can provide adequate accountability, noting that "the lack of publicly available information about school performance undermines parents' ability to make good choices."

She also dispels the myth that vouchers would reduce the number of challenges to school district decisions regarding special education. There is no downward trend in the number of requests for due process hearings.

McKay has had a positive economic impact -- on private school operators. The number of private schools in Florida has increased 8 percent since 1999, when McKay and the now-defunct A+ voucher programs were enacted, while existing private schools have expanded their special education offerings.

The increased supply, however, is not geographically consistent. Twelve of Florida's 67 counties have no participating private schools, and another 14 have only one each.

June 2007


More information is available at the Education Sector Web site here and the full report is here (PDF, 15 pages).