I just discovered that I forgot to post the link to the story about the McKay Scholarship Program published by the Miami New Times, so I am reposting this entry. Gus Garcia-Roberts, the reporter who conducted this investigation of fraud in the voucher program for students with disabilities, was honored by the Society for Professional Journalists for this story.

Marcus Winters is one of those researchers who always advocates for vouchers. He often writes opinion pieces in places like the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, extolling the virtues of vouchers and private management.

In this article in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, Winters explains why New York should follow the example of Florida and give vouchers to special education students.

Winters extols Florida’s McKay Scholarship program but fails to mention that it became immersed in scandal after a Miami newspaper wrote an expose.

The schools receiving vouchers are unregulated; the state never inquires about their curriculum or their facilities.

A brief excerpt from the story in the Miami New Times:

While the state played the role of the blind sugar daddy, here is what went on at South Florida Prep, according to parents, students, teachers, and public records: Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick —Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting “mother nature” — a woman’s period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. “We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

In May 2009, two vanloads of South Florida Prep kids were on the way back from a field trip to Orlando when one of the vehicles flipped along Florida’s Turnpike. A teacher and an 18-year-old senior were killed. Turns out another student, age 17 and possessing only a learner’s permit, was behind the wheel and had fallen asleep. The families of the deceased and an insurance company are suing Brown for negligence.

Meanwhile, Brown openly used a form of corporal punishment that has been banned in Miami-Dade and Broward schools for three decades. Four former students and the music teacher Norris recall that the principal frequently paddled students for misbehaving. In a complaint filed with the DOE in April 2009, one parent rushed to the school to stop Brown from taking a paddle to her son’s behind.

The reporter described the McKay Scholarship program as: “a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash: Dole out millions to anybody calling himself an educator. Don’t regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going. For optimal results, do this in Florida, America’s fraud capital.”

The program has doled out over $1 billion in public funds to more than 1,000 schools. What does deregulation mean? “There is no accreditation requirement for McKay schools. And without curriculum regulations, the DOE can’t yank back its money if students are discovered to be spending their days filling out workbooks, watching B-movies, or frolicking in the park. In one “business management” class, students shook cans for coins on street corners.”

Because the schools are private — although accepting publicly funded vouchers — the DOE is not allowed to monitor curriculum. For the same reason, the department claims it can’t bar corporal punishment, despite parents’ complaints that children are being paddled.

Marcus Winters’ colleague Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas defended the McKay Scholarship program by pointing to an anecdote about a child in a public school special-education program in Alabama who was maltreated. Greene disparaged the publication, implying that it is an untrustworthy source, not to be taken seriously. But the writer of the story, Gus Garcia-Roberts was honored by the Society of Professional Journalists, which named him as first-place winner of its Sigma Delta Chi award for public service journalism for a reporter at a non-daily publication.

Unlike Greene’s defense of the McKay Scholarships, the story in the Miami New Times was not an anecdote about the mistreatment of one child. It was a story about a system in which many children are mistreated, the result of a two-month investigation into a state-funded program that has no standards for the schools that receive the state’s most vulnerable children.

Six months after the original story, the newspaper wrote a follow-up. Florida legislators, including sponsors of the vouchers for special education, have vowed to reform the program. Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican who originally co-sponsored the program, declared our findings “appalling… I’m amazed that there’s not more scrutiny about where the money is going.” The program’s progenitor, former Florida Senate President McKay, a Republican from Bradenton, concluded: “Somebody better get off their ass and fix those problems.

Meanwhile, New York legislators need to do something to reform the state’s privatized program of special education for preschoolers. Just weeks ago, the New York Times published an expose about the fraud and corruption in that expensive, scandal-ridden boondoggle.