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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off

Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off

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When Dorian and Paul Neidhart went house-hunting in Miami 13 years ago, their search focused on the neighborhood where they had grown up. They wanted their own children, someday, to go to the same public schools that had meant so much to them.

The couple settled into a house in the Pine Crest area—four doors away from Paul's boyhood home. When the time came, they enrolled their daughter, Meghan, who has a learning disability, in Coral Reef Elementary School, the same school both parents had attended.

But nostalgia and reality have since parted ways. Big class sizes overwhelmed Meghan. And her schedule, a conglomeration of regular and special education classes, was chaotic and counterproductive, the Neidharts found. Meghan would be pulled out in the middle of a lesson to work with specialists, then be returned as the rest of the class was well into a science class.

"I'm all for inclusive classes, but it wasn't right for my daughter," Ms. Neidhart said. "When a child is lost in the classroom, that child is losing a year of learning. Something's got to be done."

What the Neidharts did, with the financial help of a little-known pilot voucher program begun in Florida two years ago for students with disabilities, was move their daughter to a private school. The program will expand to serve thousands more students like Meghan, now age 9, in the coming school year. Quietly, it has become the larger of the state's two voucher programs. Eventually, it could become the largest in the United States.

In the past two years, the program was overshadowed by Florida's other, more closely watched voucher system, for students who attend schools designated as "failing" by the state. President Bush patterned his national school choice proposal after that program, the only statewide plan of its kind. So far, though, Florida's general voucher plan has aided only students from two Pensacola elementary schools.

Meanwhile, a bill signed into law in May by Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the president's brother, has now removed limitations on who may use the vouchers for students with disabilities. That means any of the 350,000 such students in the state are eligible under the program known as the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities, named after the Florida Senate president who established it.

Officials expect about 4,000 students to participate this fall, four times the number who received aid in 2000-01. That could make the McKay program second in size nationally to the Milwaukee voucher program, which expects more than 9,600 students this fall. In Cleveland, about 3,900 low-income students received vouchers from the state last year. Officials said no estimate for the fall was available.

No New 'Failing' Schools

While the Florida tuition program for students with disabilities gears up for an influx of participants, the state's flagship voucher effort will see no growth, given the way eligibility for the program is determined.

Florida's school report card did not contain any "failing" schools this year, leaving no new students eligible for the general voucher program for the second year in a row. ("Fla. Schools Get Better Report Cards," July 12, 2000.) A school must receive an F for two out of four years to be labeled failing and thus allow parents whose children attend it to be eligible for publicly financed tuition vouchers. Those parents can use the vouchers, worth about $3,600 each, to send their children to public schools with better ratings or to private schools, including religious schools.

Seventy-eight schools received an F grade two years ago, according to the Florida Department of Education's Choice Office. But none of them got the grade a second time. From the two Pensacola schools that previously had two failing years, 51 students received state vouchers for private school tuition, and 84 students chose to go to another public school. Once the students qualify for the failing-schools program, they are entitled to receive the vouchers every year through their K-12 educations, even if their home public school improves its grade.

The stalled regular voucher program has people from both sides of the issue claiming success.

"The better-known program in Florida is an interesting model in that it does work to fix public schools," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The other schools got the message."

But Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said the absence of more failing schools last year did not prove that vouchers help improve public schools. She said other measures tied to the state program did the trick. The state gives financial and other aid to schools that get an F to help them improve.

"I find it obnoxious to suggest that a teacher is going to work harder and a school will be better because of a threat of vouchers," she said. "The Florida education community has been working for years to develop proposals to turn around schools. ... The extra assistance given to the schools that are at risk of failing certainly helped. You can't have good schools without spending money."

14,000 Calls

Under the McKay scholarship program for students with disabilities, parents can receive vouchers regardless of how their child's school performs in the eyes of the state. Parents of a child with disabilities who believe that the school is not meeting his or her needs are eligible to receive vouchers that are worth either what the school district pays in annual costs for that child or the price of tuition to a private school, whichever is cheaper.

The average value of the vouchers for students in the program is around $6,000 a year. For the school year that just ended, the state spent $5.8 million on vouchers for about 1,000 students with disabilities, who could choose from any other public school or 100 private schools approved by the state.

There are now 324 private schools eligible to receive such students, said Diane McCain, the director of the Florida Department of Education's office on school choice. The program began in 1999 as a pilot project with just two students.

Between May, when the legislature passed the new law, and late June, the first deadline for the program, Ms. McCain's office received about 14,000 calls from parents. Parents wishing to take part in the program must apply at least 60 days before they want to use the vouchers.

As interest in the program increases, it has sparked some debate about whether the vouchers are good for students with disabilities.

Some opponents of the McKay scholarship program say it could encourage the creation all over Florida of schools not qualified to handle students with disabilities.

"There are very few accountability measures," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. "It seems likely our private-sector entrepreneurs could open fly-by-night schools."

But Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, disagreed that schools must report to government or inevitably become mediocre.

"This whole accountability issue is based on the presumption that if you are accountable to government authorities, then the taxpayer is well protected," he said. "Private schools are accountable to parents."

To accept McKay scholarship students, private schools must demonstrate that they are financially sound, comply with anti-discrimination laws, meet state health and safety codes, and employ teachers who hold bachelor's degrees or higher, or have at least three years of teaching experience, Ms. McCain said.

Questions also have surfaced about the McKay program's constitutionality. The Florida Education Association is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the regular voucher program, contending that the use of public dollars for tuition at religious schools violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of a government establishment of religion. The pending case does not include the McKay program, however.

But Mr. Clark of the FEA said that should the union prevail in its lawsuit against the regular vouchers, he believes that the McKay program would likewise be unconstitutional.

But back in Miami's Pine Crest neighborhood, far below the plain of constitutional arguments, the issue is personal: What's best for my child?

Dorian Neidhart chose to send her daughter back this fall for a second year at Killian Oaks Academy, a Miami private school for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities.

"Before, I felt really lost, not knowing what to do with Meghan," Ms. Neidhart said. "Now I feel blessed that we are able to send her to a school like that." Meghan will be in the 4th grade in the coming school year.

John Shuster, a spokesman for the 361,000-student Miami-Dade County school system, said he could not discuss Meghan Neidhart's experience at Coral Reef Elementary School or the family's decision to use a voucher.

"I don't think a comment is appropriate," Mr. Shuster said. "If someone comes to us wanting a voucher, we work with the state to get them what they need."

Ms. Neidhart said she chose the private school because class sizes are between six and eight students, and each student is tested to determine his or her individual learning style and level.

Mercedes Ricon, the director for Killian Oaks Academy, said the McKay scholarship program's growth doesn't mean private schools stand to make a lot of taxpayer money. She said that tuition for the school is $13,500 a year, but that Meghan's school district paid about $5,000. The school covered the rest of her tuition with their own scholarships.

"We tested Meghan, and she does best with hands-on activities," Ms. Ricon added. "She is a tactile-visual learner. She had always been a painter at home. By incorporating art in her classes, she could develop confidence. She needed that strength to be incorporated into her learning experience."

According to her mother, Meghan has thrived at the school. "She is a new child," Ms. Neidhart said. "Her self-esteem has soared. She has come up in all areas."

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Pages 28,35

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