Last summer’s Miami New Times story detailing abuse and fraud by privately run schools cashing in on McCay scholarship money finally prompted a hearing this week in Tallahassee. Matt Dixon reports for the Florida Times- Union:
TALLAHASSEE – Democrats grilled a Department of Education official Tuesday and once again said a school-choice scholarship program allowed too much room for fraud.
Many of the arguments that played out during the K-20 Innovate Subcommittee meeting mirrored the last session, when Democrats argued that the McKay Scholarships lacked accountability.
“With all due respect to [the Department of Education] … it does not appear that they have the tools they need to ensure the McKay Scholarship really only goes to good actors,” said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Parkland.
A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, expanded the McKay program, which offers taxpayer-funded scholarships to disabled students to attend private schools. As a result of the expansion, 883 additional students joined the program this year.
Though critics trotted out the same arguments as last session, their positions were bolstered by a June investigation by the Miami New Times that found provider schools were collecting money for kids who did not attend those schools, some had staffers with criminal records, and some did not have physical locations.
Noteworthy on Tuesday was the appearance before the committee of top charter school lobbyist – turned state agency boss, Michael Kooi. The director of independent education and parental choice took exception to the New Times story and shot off a letter of condemnation in June. Kooi appeared to be more contrite before the legislature this week, but lets take a look at that June letter he sent to the New Times
It’s also clear that the article’s author is woefully uneducated about the DOE’s oversight as it relates to scholarship-recipient private schools – an understandable byproduct given the fact that he never asked to speak to DOE staff charged with oversight of the McKay program. Had he spoken with them, he would have learned that these schools are required to annually attest to accountability provisions contained in Section 1002.421, Florida Statutes, and failure to do so is an automatic removal from the program for a year. He also would have learned that although site visits to McKay Scholarship schools are limited to three per year, the DOE has developed strong relationships with other agencies such as local health and fire departments as well as state entities such as the Department of Health, Department of Children and Families and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These relationships provide an additional layer of oversight that is crucial in the absence of a physical DOE presence in each school district.
But here’s what Kooi told legislators on Tuesday:
Michael Kooi, who was updating the panel on the changes to the program, said that many schools in the report were no longer in the program.
“The process and requirements we have in place allowed us to take action,” said Kooi, executive director of Florida’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.
Chances are that Kooi was not asked about his letter. He’s nonetheless changed his tune and perhaps his story as well. Someone should ask him why.