McKay Scholarship Scandal Prompts Reform

A recent expose by the Miami New Times has showed how the state of Florida has given more than $1 billion to the John M. McKay Scholarship for disabled students, despite fraud being rampant at some of the schools that received millions from the fund.

The report detailed how fraud is rampant in these schools, where some of the schools have rap sheets that include cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary, yet no withholding of money from the fund has happened.

A lack of regulation has let some organizations run haywire. Some "schools" that actually don't even exist have been set up purely to receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, this is set to change, as last week Florida Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, recommended measures — including regular site visits to schools and verified background checks of faculty — that would address the McKay program's most egregious flaws, writes Gus Garcia-Roberts at the Miami New Times.

"The Department of Education (DOE) seemed to think that this isn't a very big deal, but I think it's a huge deal," Kriseman says.

"When I read [New Times' investigation], I was aghast."

In a two-month investigation, the Miami New Times uncovered a McKay-funded cottage industry of fly-by-night schools operating in storefronts, churches, and dingy homes, writes Garcia-Roberts.

"Students spent entire school days filling out workbooks or hanging out in a gymnasium watching television. One class — which an Oakland Park principal had the gall to call "business management" — consisted of shaking cans on street corners."

The Department of Education currently isn't allowed to monitor private schools – despite them accepting publically funded vouchers. Because of this, the department claims it can't bar corporal punishment, despite parents' complaints that children are being paddled.

However, change seems imminent. Earlier in the fall a "legislative priority" was proposed for the upcoming session, a "school accountability bill" that would strengthen background checks for operators of McKay-eligible schools.

Superintendent Carvalho told the New Times they're looking to implement minimal standardized testing and auditing in the schools.

Last week, Rep.Kriseman sent a letter to the K-20 Innovation Subcommittee's chair, Rep. Kelli Stargel, urging nine basic measures to increase oversight of the McKay program.

Among Kriseman's recommendations:

  • Every new McKay location would receive a site visit
  • Faculty background checks would be verified by the state
  • Accreditation and teacher certification would be required
  • Minimal curriculum monitoring
  • Those who commit fraud would be subject to stricter prison sentences

"It is my hope that none of us will ever have to read stories again," Kriseman declared, "about scammers and rip-off artists bilking precious dollars that should be spent on educating our most vulnerable children."

"If there's enough pressure put on the chair," says Kriseman, "these changes will happen quickly."

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