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Florida’s Most Vulturous Voucher Program

by MICHELLE RENEE MATISONS

For more than a decade, Florida has cultivated the largest and fastest growing school voucher program in the U.S.—shamefully targeting students with disabilities. Florida is better known for its dutiful implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but the state’s McKay voucher program deserves urgent attention from anyone concerned with education and/ or disability issues. Florida’s has shown that there are big financial incentives behind diagnosing young people as “special needs.” Under McKay and programs like it, students are packed, like sardines, into classrooms and experimented on like guinea pigs. Ghettoizing, medicating, and entertaining “customers” (students) has replaced teaching. And presto! The state’s saves millions. This program has national implications because it’s serving as a template for other cash-strapped states facing the so-called “disability problem.” As one pro-voucher advocate so succinctly summarizes: “Special needs voucher programs are one of the most promising avenues for advancing school choice today.”

For the education piratizers, students with disabilities (a term used here in exchange with “special needs” because that’s how legislation is written) make prime targets (or scapegoats) for a couple of reasons. First, it is easy to manipulate public emotion with propaganda about how the public school system’s bloated bureaucracy is blocking the progress of students with disabilities. For the charter movement, students with disabilities pose a big problem because they have unique educational requirements perceived to be in conflict with the movement’s evidence based culture–with all of its high scoring aspirations and profit based obsessions. The more public school infrastructures become taxed to meet new federal standards, and the more that the charter movement views special needs students as an obstacle to the exuberant success they so diligently market, more states are likely to import Florida’s oh so efficient solution: state funded, privately operated educational ghettoes.

Florida passed the students with disabilities voucher program in 1999, and renamed it the John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities program in 2001. John M. McKay is a state representative who grew sensitive to special needs issues due to his child’s own experiences. He partnered with another enthusiastic education piratizer, then Governor Jeb Bush, to institute the voucher program. McKay program students need either an Individual Education Plan (IEP)—which details services public schools are required to offer students with disabilities– or a 504 (disability) accommodations plan. They are granted “scholarships” to transfer to another public or private school with better accommodations. According to the Florida Department of Education, the program has had a 2000% increase in participating students since its inception over a decade ago. It initially served 970 students, and in the 2010 school year it served 20, 926 students.

“Value” Them

McKay schools are accountable to no one. They can opt to follow school district calendars and curricular protocols to create a façade of synchronicity with their local public schools, but they operate with funds pirated from those very same public school budgets. McKay schools accept students valued according to their diagnoses, but the valuation process can be inconsistent. In the 2011-2012, the voucher range was ~$4,000 to ~$19,000, with the average scholarship amount at ~$7,000. At the McKay high school where I taught English for a year and a half, I was informed by the principal/owner that some of the most disruptive students were “high value” students. But I didn’t see him hiring extra support, like personal aides or therapists, even when money was earmarked for their educational needs. The money went into the general pool and disappeared.

According to a pro-voucher advocate in National Affairs journal, McKay provides “a powerful mechanism that can help save cash strapped states millions of dollars.” How’s that? In 2007-2008 it cost Florida ~$13,000/ year to educate a public school student, and 43% less to educate a McKay voucher school student. Unfortunately, Florida’s neediest, and in many cases most vulnerable, students and their families bear the brunt of the cost-effective measures used to accomplish that savings per student. Also, the fact that 54% of Florida McKay students are students of color places this program squarely in the middle of racial resegregation dynamics.

When I got hired to teach high school English at a McKay school, I opposed the concept of it in principle, but decided to conduct some fieldwork. Eventually I quit out of dismay and, really, total disgust that the word “education” is attached to the program at all. This article addresses my hands on teaching experience in only one McKay school, but I’m also analyzing a structural problem: neglect for students with disabilities grows precisely where the cost of educating them shrinks. This is no small thing when we consider that seven other states—Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin—have developed voucher programs modeled after the McKay program, and there’s more to come.

While ghettoizing students with disabilities away from the traffic of “normal schools”, McKay also strips them of constitutionally protected rights to equal education, including specialized and therapeutic services, guaranteed by 1990’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Even with legal protections such as 1990’s IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities act (ADA), it is still very difficult to ensure equal accommodations for people with disabilities. But voucher schools can ignore this legislation—a terrible idea all the way around.

Teach Them

When I was hired, I was given ~72 students, comprising 9-12 grades, with the mere directive to “teach them.” I had no individual files on students’ diagnoses or reading/ writing performance scores. One student is autistic with minimal communication skills, while another student is wheelchair bound due to Cerebral Palsy and needs physical help negotiating the classroom. Another student you just want to keep from hitting a wall… or a classmate… I wasn’t exactly sure why each student was there and I felt sensitive about prying them for personal information. How can I teach, without boring the higher functioning students or baffling the lower functioning students, when I am unsure about their previous reading and writing test scores and capabilities? I took the principal/ owner’s dismissive declaration that “We don’t use the IEP’s from the public schools here” to mean, “Teachers are here to legitimate this enterprise, administrators are here to pocket public funds.”

I really tried for a while out of concern for my students. 1 teacher to 18 students is the legal ratio under McKay legislation, which is wildly inaccurate when you consider their challenges. I grew more despondent when I realized there were gaping holes in the school’s services that ensured my failure as a teacher. The school (which served 1-12 grades) had no high school guidance counselors, speech therapists, occupational therapists or personal aides for the students who needed some or all of the therapeutic services legally mandated by IDEA. Furthermore, I had no teaching assistants. Money is saved while students are starved.

Starve and Medicate Them

Speaking of starvation. Low-income public school students are legally guaranteed access to a free or reduced lunch under Title I, but many of my McKay students starved because this lunch program is history for them. One of my students, Tanya, had fetal alcohol syndrome and severe PTSD from a rape endured as a young girl. The semester before I quit, I sat with Tanya everyday during lunch. Very emaciated and frequently under-clothed, she always had two pieces of white bread with the tiniest amount of generic brand nutella spread on it. Some days she may have a small bag of chips or a soda. And she was not one of the really starving ones. The students could access a catered hot lunch, but they had to pay for it in advance. The result: many students would sit and twiddle their thumbs, or fight, during lunch at this innovative private/ public educational establishment. Anything to be distracted from hunger pangs.

Teaching hungry students is difficult enough, but what about hungry and heavily medicated? Florida is a pill mill operating through the veins of its overly-diagnosed youth. Most of my students were medicated for ADHD, depression, and borderline/ bipolar/ post traumatic stress disorders. One student was given his dose of anti-psychotics right before he entered my classroom. Hurray. Combine organic learning difficulties, the lack of professional classroom support, insane teacher to student ratios without assistants, and the diversity of challenges ranging from behavioral to developmental and physical disabilities, and you have a recipe for educational disaster.

Read to Them

Reading levels were so varied I read out loud from our Literature selection: one text could not serve our collective needs. Usually students couldn’t read along because we didn’t have enough copies of the chosen book. Their penmanship was in many cases so terrible I could not read their writing. It was as if no one had ever taught them to do print writing, never mind cursive. Although I reviewed the difference between nouns and verbs ad nauseum, many students in all grade levels were unable to give me a person, place, or thing when I asked for a noun. Retention seemed close to nonexistent there. To pour salt in the wounds, most students played with their handheld devices in the classroom. My favorite example of how distracting these can be is when the bell rang and I told a student to put his handheld away. He responded: “But it’s The Bride of Chucky!” Although the principal/owner was aware of this problem, we aim for happy customers overall, so the devices stayed.

While public school teachers rightfully rage about curricula and testing standardization, my McKay school had the opposite problem: there was no testing except what individual teachers implemented for grading purposes. Florida public schools administer the horrendous FCAT (our highly controversial standardized test) which has caused a host of problems. But my McKay school had no tracking system for student progress or, conversely, accountability standards for teachers.

It is possible to administer some kind of annual assessment, but not “teach to it” or overemphasize test results at the expense of our students’ well being. I’m simply thinking about tracking how students advance year to year when asked to perform basic English skills. But there’s no legal requirement to officially track student progress, beyond grade reports, and this would add an important paper trail revealing the ineffectiveness of the McKay model beyond dollar signs. Tracking progress and accountability take more time, so money gets involved.

Given the program’s structural deterrents to teaching and learning, what’s happening at special needs voucher schools beyond a song and dance routine for parents and legislators? To be fair, McKay schools are occasionally audited for compliance, but I was informed I would not have to show auditors any evidence of my teaching—such as lessons plans or students’ work. Then what do they look for? The most superficial legal compliance, it seems.

No one is keeping McKay school administrators from developing fair tracking and accountability systems and providing therapeutic services and free lunches that public school students are guaranteed. It has become quite profitable to diagnose and then transfer students into special needs private schools. But why would they do this? There’s no financial incentive to give students what they deserve. Lawsuits for and against voucher programs, including the lucrative special needs variety, have come and gone: but the idea to target students with disabilities for privatization experimentation is gaining momentum. I used to call my school’s product a “strip mall education” because it was in a strip mall setting surrounded by medical offices. I also call it immoral. One day I hope we can call it illegal.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. is an independent scholar doing ethnographic research on education in the Florida panhandle—for the time being. She can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.

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