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A lack of accountability wth Vouchers hurt our most vulnerable students

From the Sun Sentinel Editorial board

Florida hands out tens of millions of dollars in vouchers to help students with learning disabilities attend private schools.

Hold your applause. There's a catch. There's always a catch.

State law provides no requirement — thus no incentive — for these schools to actually offer specialized services for learning disabled students. And nobody from state or local government ever checks to see if their needs are being met.
Call it an oversight if lawmakers forgot to create standards for schools that receive these vouchers, known as McKay Scholarships. But call it unforgivable if they fail to fix the charade.

Taxpayers pay good money to help students with learning disabilities get the help they need to succeed, and we expect those paid-for services to be delivered — not requested or hoped for — whether in public or private schools.

Last year, the Department of Education doled out $18.1 million in vouchers to help 2,500 Broward students attend a private school, Sun Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney recently reported. These vouchers ranged from $4,100 to nearly $20,000 per child. Throw in another $8.5 million for 1,232 students in Palm Beach County, and you see we're not talking about small change.

The results are painfully predictable: Of the 138 private schools in Broward County, Sweeney found at least 83 do not employ full-time special education teachers. Many don't even have a tutor on campus. In Palm Beach County, at least 28 of the 59 private schools do not.

And why would they?

Why would for-profit businesses — yes, even those in the field of education — use their own staff, resources and time to provide complex and costly services when taxpayer-backed checks keep coming if they don't? If there's no consequence for failing to deliver, why change?

The ones paying the price are students in need of extra help, and their parents, who are pooling their money with state vouchers to try to help their children.

"If someone wants to pay for a school that has no standards out of their own pocket, they're free to do that. This is America," says Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of public advocacy group Fund Education Now. "But when you're taking public dollars and you're putting them into these private schools that are not regulated and have no obligation to meet the same standards that we impose on our public schools, that's when the public should become concerned."

The state's response? Hands-off, essentially. Buyer beware.

"If a parent of an eligible special needs student is unhappy with a private school," said Cheryl Etters, a spokesperson for the DOE, "they may choose to transfer the student to another participating private school or a public school."

Better than asking parents to bounce their children from school to school, state officials should ensure schools that take public money for special-needs kids provide the services needed by special-needs kids.

If accountability is good enough for public schools, it's good enough for private schools that receive public money.

"These are some of our most fragile students and they deserve proper education and support," Oropeza says. "It would be criminal if they're not getting it."

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