Perspective on McKay

Ed Week, Ed Sector, and others are picking up on a hyperventilating story from the free weekly Miami New Times about misconduct in Florida’s McKay Scholarship voucher program for disabled students.  The piece is actually a re-hash of a story the New Times ran 5 months ago about private schools participating in McKay that mishandled money, hired incompetent staff, or failed to provide adequate services.

The stories were embarrassing, but the reaction by the New Times and others has been completely lacking in perspective.  Organizations receiving government funds are unfortunately even more prone to misconduct than typical organizations.  This is also true of public schools.  For example in the Detroit Public Schools we see:

Five Detroit Public Schools employees have been charged with embezzlement in an ongoing probe into the “culture of corruption” that took hold in the state’s largest district, a prosecutor said Wednesday….

A series of audits into district finances have been ordered. Two separate audits announced last week revealed the district has been paying $2.1 million per year for health coverage for ineligible dependents, and bought 160 unused BlackBerries and 11 motorcycles.

“It has been said that the accomplice to corruption is frequently our own indifference, and I agree wholeheartedly with that,” Worthy told reporters in announcing the charges.

“My office was not surprised about the culture of corruption that we’ve been seeing in the past in the Detroit Public Schools system,” she said. “What did surprise even us, though … is how rampant, how overt and how conspicuous and downright bold-faced the corruption is, allegedly, in some of the cases that we’ve been looking at.”

And from Springfield, MA public schools we learn:

A 13-month audit recently concluded at Putnam Vocational Technical High School found that some employees abused a student association checking account that operated independently from the city and school system in apparent violation of Massachusetts law.

McCaskill was in charge of that unauthorized account, which averaged about $200,000 annually in transactions since late 2005, but was managed with a manual ledger that never matched bank statements, according to the report from Springfield’s Office of Internal Audit….

“There is no excuse for the disgraceful, dishonest practices that appeared to have run rampant among a group of employees at the school for several years,” Ingram also wrote in a post on his official blog.

And right in the backyard of the Miami New Times we find the mysterious absence of $3.8 million from the Broward County teacher union accounts, the prior head of the Broward teacher union in jail for soliciting sex from a minor, and the former head of the Miami-Dade County teacher union in jail for corruption and embezzlement.

And while the New Times was repeating the complaints of Miami-Dade superintendent  Alberto Carvalho about McKay, they somehow failed to mention Carvalho’s own history of manipulating newspaper coverage through a reporter with whom he was reportedly having an affair.

But these are just selected anecdotes.  In a systematic study of scandals in public and private schools, Greg Forster and Matthew Carr found that misconduct was actually slightly more likely in regulated public schools than in largely unregulated private schools.  That is, some amount of scandal is unfortunately unstoppable and increasing regulation or government operation of schools is unlikely to eliminate the problem.

Of course, the existence of misconduct in traditional public schools in no way excuses the misconduct that has been uncovered in the McKay program.  But then again no one calls for the public school system to be shut down as a result of these scandals like folks are calling for an end to McKay.  And Diane Ravitch, in her typical, scholarly fashion, responds to the McKay reports by tweeting “Legalized child abuse in Florida?”, but appears to have no reaction to similar reports from traditional public schools.

My point is that the reaction to reports of misconduct in the McKay program are lacking perspective.  Yes, abuses need to be stopped.  And the regulations on the books, if enforced, could keep those abuses to a minimum. As former Senator John McKay told a Florida newspaper in response to calls for more regulation:

Kriseman suggested nine issues to increase accountability, including mandatory site inspections of facilities. He said the Department of Education should review and sign off on personnel criminal background checks in facilities seeking to receive McKay dollars. And teachers in a school accepting McKay dollars should have a state teaching certificate.

Former State Senate President John McKay — who created the law — agrees. McKay listened to Kriseman’s full list of suggestions.

“A number of his suggestions are quite positive,” McKay said. “Many of the things he’s asking for are already in the statute.”

McKay suggested asking officials with the Department of Education to enforce the law.

“It’s nice to have words in a statute,” McKay said. “Unless someone does something, it’s kind of meaningless.”

And of course, all of these criticisms of McKay fail to mention the proven positive effects of the program.  It improves student achievement for disabled students, reduces the rate of new identification of disabilities, increases the chances that students will receive needed services, and is overwhelmingly loved by parents.  I wish we could say the same about all traditional public schools, including those riddled with misconduct.

-Jay P. Greene

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