Florida Vouchers Invite Entrepreneural Chicanery
State tax money intended to send disabled students to private schools is being siphoned off by middlemen who use it to help parents home-school their children -- a use never envisioned by the law's sponsor.
The state's oversight of the McKay scholarships program is so lax that the middlemen -- organizations listed in state records as private schools but often just a person's home or Web site -- are able to take in thousands of dollars each year in state vouchers with little accounting for how that money is spent.
Critics complain that the organizations are nothing more than clearinghouses for home-schooling parents to receive vouchers, something they can't normally do under state law.
In one case, a parent complained that the organization wanted up to half the voucher money for itself.
But proponents argue that home-school parents, especially those of disabled students, have just as much a right to vouchers as those whose children attend failing schools or who are poor; both groups are eligible for vouchers under existing law.
Still, with limited accountability to the state, even the creator of the McKay law said he's concerned that there is too much opportunity for abuse.
"As a person that conceived this idea, that is something that was not intended," former Senate President John McKay said about the home-school groups. "I can't comment as to whether those programs are effective or not, but I have some apprehension."
A Boynton Beach home-school consultant that received more than $54,000 in vouchers last year was recently investigated by an official in the state Education Department's Choice Office after a home-school parent complained the consultant wanted between 30 percent and 50 percent of a McKay scholarship for administrative and enrollment fees.
Tuition raises questions
Castle Oak Academy, whose official address is a private residence, was also questioned by the former director of the Choice Office for listing its tuition for McKay students at $6,700 on its Web site, but accepting scholarships well above that amount -- $15,000 in the case of one student.
Castle Oak's Web site does say that home-school parents need to speak with Castle Oak officials about possible extra fees.
In an e-mail response to a request for an interview, Castle Oak officials said: "Castle Oak believes in parents being informed consumers. Therefore, we inform them of not only the total amount of their child's scholarship funds, but also, and most importantly, how their child's funds are spent."
The school says its tuition for this year is $6,760 and covers "educational materials... textbooks, online classes, computer software, assistive technology, special programs that address neurological disorders, one-on-one access to a Florida Certified Teacher, speech/language therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy."
McKay scholarships are worth between $5,000 and $21,000, depending on the severity of a student's disability. Disabilities can range from dyslexia and speech impediments to physical impairments.
The average McKay scholarship last year was about $6,800.
Few people criticize the overall concept of the growing McKay voucher program, saying disabled students can often find superior services in specialized private-school settings.
However, vouchers for parents who home-school their disabled students is a different matter, they say.
In 2001, a Port Orange family unhappy with their 9-year-old son's public education started their own nonprofit private school to home-school him, enabling the parents to receive a McKay voucher.
The maneuver is legal under the McKay law, but if the school only benefits the family that created it, it could be in violation of federal tax laws governing nonprofit groups.
Current Senate President Jim King, who has already appointed a task force to study McKay vouchers, is concerned about the possibility that the vouchers are being exploited.
"Evidently, what we've done is to encourage a stealing frenzy by some bottom-feeders," King said.
Corporate vouchers checked
McKay scholarships are not the only voucher program that has recently found itself under state scrutiny.
Corporate tax-credit vouchers, which were worth nearly $50 million last year, are the subject of a Senate interim study.
Corporations receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money they give to scholarship funding organizations.
The organizations then give vouchers to poor students to attend private schools.
This year, the legislature increased the limit on corporate vouchers to $88 million. Although there's no guarantee corporations will donate that much, whatever money goes to scholarship funding organizations is money taken away from the state's general budget, which pays for things such as public schools.
The McKay program and corporate tax-credit program differ from Opportunity Scholarships, which are tax-funded vouchers given to students in schools that receive an F grade from the state two out of any four years.
Proponents argue that state oversight of voucher programs isn't necessary because ultimate accountability lies with parents, who can choose to withdraw a child from a private school if they are unhappy.
"This is market-driven," said Nancy Moral, the director of the Family Tree Private School in Loxahatchee, a Christian group that helps parents who home-school and accepts McKay vouchers as tuition. "The mistake the public system has made over the years is deeming the parents non-experts. The parents are eager to get the very best for their money. At public schools they are often stopped at the door."
About 9,000 students last year, including about 400 in Palm Beach County, accepted McKay scholarships.
More than 600 local students have applied for the scholarships this year.
To qualify for the McKay program, students must have spent the previous year in a public school and have an individual plan that outlines exactly what steps teachers need to take to best educate the student.
For schools to qualify for the scholarships, all they have to do is be fiscally sound, comply with anti-discrimination laws and meet state and local health and safety standards.
The state does not require schools getting McKay scholarships to hire certified teachers, use a specific curriculum or test students.
It also does not require them to be traditional private schools, allowing the home-school assistance organizations to also accept the vouchers.
Statewide, hundreds of private schools are approved to take McKay scholarships.
It's unclear how many of those schools are home-school assistance organizations because the state does not track them separately from other private schools, but officials believe they are a minority.
Of the 48 schools approved to accept McKay vouchers in Palm Beach County, two are believed to be home-school consultants.
"I just try to make sure parents understand that they are responsible for their child's education in these situations," said Debbie Tanguay, a special-education resource teacher in the Palm Beach County School District who works with parents taking McKay vouchers. "Unfortunately, if you are raised in the public school system there are some things you take for granted."
But Moral, the director of the Family Tree Private School in Loxahatchee, said parents shouldn't be underestimated and that home-school consultants are legitimate educators who should be allowed to use McKay scholarships.
Moral, who said she is a certified special-education teacher, charges a 10 percent flat fee, a $25-a-month enrollment fee, a $60 registration fee and then hourly fees that vary depending on the service provided.
Fifteen of her 80 students receive a McKay voucher, and whatever is left from the fees goes into a school bank account that can be used by the parent for materials or extra services.
"I tell the parents to always use up all the money," Moral said. "They have no problem spending it."
Moral said she has no problem with the state examining how McKay vouchers are used but that if legislators require more accountability her fees will go up.
"I understand the purpose of regulation is to weed out the bad apples," she said. "But if it costs more for me to facilitate this because of added workload, I will have to charge the parents more."
Moral, like many of the home-school groups that accept McKay vouchers, serves children throughout the state.
Last year, the Boynton Beach-based Castle Oak Academy had home-school students in six counties as far away as Marion and Polk, according to state records.
The Web site for Castle Oak Academy assures parents that school administrators are only a phone call away, "and for most issues a phone call is all that it takes."
"These are students who are often ridiculed and bullied in other educational settings that exacerbate their disabilities, creating additional issues and behaviors," Castle Oak officials wrote in their e-mail, which did not name a specific spokesman.
In a February letter to the Education Department, McKay scholarship parent Ellen de Matos said she was told 30 to 50 percent of her voucher would be taken by Castle Oak Academy for "enrollment and access to your money."
The remainder of the scholarship would go into a bank account at the school and be available if she needed to receive extra services or buy home-school materials.
De Matos said in her letter that if she didn't spend all of her scholarship, the school would keep the rest.
Robert Metty, the former director of scholarship programs for the state, said that in February Castle Oak Academy was receiving McKay vouchers for seven children; de Matos' son by then had withdrawn.
Metty was later transferred to another position after making a whistle-blower complaint about what he felt was a public records violation concerning the corporate tax-credit voucher program.
The state requires organizations accepting McKay vouchers to fill out forms explaining how they spend the money.
Metty said Castle Oak checked off à la carte services, such as physical therapy and math tutoring, so that the charged tuition for each child met or exceeded the amount of the voucher available from the state.
But based on Metty's conversations with de Matos, he said, "the fee schedule the school has charged the state has nothing to do with the services the child received."
"They're simply acting as a clearinghouse for parents to get taxpayers' money to home-school their kids," Metty said, pointing out that was not the intention of the law and that the state does not give parents who choose to home-school any state money.
Action reportedly delayed
Although Castle Oak officials did not respond directly to Metty's allegations in their Friday e-mail, they do say they are accountable to their parents and meet state requirements.
"Castle Oak Academy is a private school," they wrote. "We comply with all the rules and regulations that are required of private schools by the state, as well as those rules and regulations to participate in the McKay Scholarship program."
Castle Oak collected vouchers totaling $54,162 on behalf of the home-school students, ranging in value from $4,899 to $15,006, according to state records.
Metty said he took the Castle Oak documentation to Education Commissioner Jim Horne's office in early March and recommended the department stop sending McKay money to it.
Present at the meeting were Horne, general counsel Daniel Woodring and top aide Alexandra Penn-Williams, among others, Metty said.
Woodring recommended the department not take any action on the school until after the legislature had left town, Metty said.
Woodring, who came to the department after working in Gov. Jeb Bush's legal office, did not return phone calls. Nor did Penn-Williams or Horne.
Frances Marine, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, denied that the meeting ever took place.
King, the Senate president, had already named a task force to study problems with the McKay program that had been uncovered in the Tampa Bay area.
Last week, he was livid when he learned that the department may have tried to conceal the Castle Oak situation from him.
"This is one of the biggest travesties of legislative intent that I've ever heard of," he said, "and one of the worst scams to rip off taxpayer dollars that I've heard of since I was elected in 1986."
King said he would direct his task force to look into the situation and draft legislation to increase accountability and scrutiny of schools to make sure it didn't happen again.
Despite problems in the McKay program as well as the corporate voucher program, Bush's office defended both.
"The governor believes these programs are serving Florida students well," spokeswoman Jill Bratina said.
Others don't believe home-school parents should be getting public-school tax money at all.
"Personally, if a parent wants to home-school, that's great, but I don't think the state should be funding it," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the teachers union. "Businesses and schools are being very creative in how to use these voucher laws, and the state doesn't seem to be concerned about it."
Kimberly Miller and S.V. Date
Palm Beach Post
Middlemen getting piece of school vouchers