POINT OF VIEW McKay record shows DeVos’ Voucher plan is misguided


During Betsy DeVos’ committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. education secretary, she specifically lauded Florida’s McKay Scholarship program as a model of school choice success. As someone in the trenches across the state of Florida as a special education attorney and the parent of a child with special needs, I strongly warn the Senate and the rest of the country, caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Before our country allows DeVos to set a course for expanding vouchers, there needs to be a clear understanding of the pitfalls of these programs and a solid plan to make the schools fully transparent and accountable for successfully educating all students.

Florida students with disabilities can use McKay scholarships to attend participating private schools. The scholarships cover part — not always all — of the tuition and fees, which limits their use by lower-income families. McKay recipients leave the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and sometimes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as the McKay funds are considered state funds and do not fall under federal funding mandates. Religious McKay schools are also exempted from Title III of the ADA, which covers all secular schools that open their facilities to the public.

What does this mean? McKay private schools can and often do get away with denying admission to students with disabilities (and non-disabled students who are far below grade level or who have disciplinary records due to difficult circumstances). McKay private schools can expel students at any time and can keep the tuition paid by families, as long as they follow their own policies. They do not have to comply with students’ individualized education plans or 504 plans, provide specialized instruction or services, or — in the case of religious schools — provide accommodations that would allow students to succeed.

My caseload is full of families for whom the McKay scholarship has not lived up to its promise. Some were recruited to McKay private schools with brochures and websites touting myriad benefits for students with disabilities, only to enroll their children and find the schools had not yet hired the speech therapists, school psychologists and special education staff that were promised. In other cases, McKay private schools billed parents for services that were supposed to be covered by their voucher. I have witnessed struggling students dropped from enrollment after the funding payment date but before high-stakes tests were administered so that the McKay schools could report high scores. And more than any other group, I have seen students with behavioral needs rejected or expelled from McKay schools, even schools that advertise Applied Behavioral Therapy and specialization in the disabilities that give rise to the behaviors.

Students failed by the McKay system are sent back to their public schools, frequently well before the funding that accompanies them to the private school is returned to the district. Often, they are farther behind when they return than they were when their families opted to pull them out due to dissatisfaction with the public schools.

I am not opposed to school choice. My son is a beneficiary of choice programs, having attended an arts magnet school that provided him with support and motivation by allowing him to pursue one of his passions. On the flipside of this success, I have seen that the voucher programs being held as shining examples often do not serve the needs of many of the most difficult-to-educate students, the ones these programs are touted to help.

We need a Secretary of Education who understands these considerations and is willing to do the hard work required to make high-quality school choice options available to truly all students, not just those that are easy to educate.

KIMBERLEY SPIRE-OH, WEST PALM BEACH

Editor’s note: Kimberley Spire-Oh is a West Palm Beach-based attorney.

McKay private schools can and often do get away with denying admission to students with disabilities.



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