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Concern Grows Over Special Education Vouchers in Florida

As the number of private school voucher and scholarship programs for students with disabilities across the country grow, meeting a variety of challenges along the way, one lawmaker in Florida is taking a hard look at that state's program.

Florida's McKay Scholarships Program is one of the oldest private school voucher options for students with disabilities. Over the summer, the Miami New Times wrote a scathing piece about some of the schools that accept the vouchers. Here's one description:

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.

Other problems at private schools paid state money to educate students with disabilities were staff that had criminal records; students were enrolled students using their personal information, even though the students were attending public schools, so the schools could collect state money; students were found to be driving school vans during field trips.

Now, state Rep. Rick Kriseman wants big changes to the state's program, which does not require accreditation for private schools that are eligible for the vouchers. And without curriculum regulations, writes The Bradenton Times, the state's department of education can't get a refund, even if schools exploit the scholarships.

The namesake of the scholarships—who created the program after struggling to find a school that could meet the needs of his daughter, who has disabilities—agrees. He said part of the problem is that the state isn't enforcing existing oversight provisions built into the scholarship law.

Last school year, the program paid $148.5 million to private schools for about 22,200 students. The scholarships paid to the roughly 1,000 schools participated ranged from $4,752 to $19,510, depending on a child's disability. The state expanded eligibility for the scholarships to include students who have 504 plans, in addition to students with disabilities who have individualized education programs. That move was expected to significantly expand the McKay scholarship program.

These news stories raise plenty of questions about the integrity of many of the schools participating. They remind me of another issue parents should consider before enrolling their children who have disabilities in private schools: the protections of federal laws that provide for educating these kids evaporate once a student enrolls in private schools.

The New Times said one student's run at a private school using vouchers turned out like this. Christopher Vaughn decided it was time to leave South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy in his junior year, when a classmate tried to stab his brother with a pen. But he couldn't transfer any of the credits he'd earned at the school.

A charter school rejected the credits, for which Christopher had earned all As and Bs. So did an alternative public school. At 18, Christopher had to become a freshman again.

"I had to start from scratch," he told the New Times. "Everything just went down the drain. I didn't feel like being in school no more."

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