Last week, the Florida Supreme Court struck down one of Florida’s school voucher systems, the Opportunity Scholarship program, by a vote of 5-2, saying it was in violation of the state’s Constitution because it diverts public money to private schools. There are several school voucher programs in place in Florida, and while the Opportunity program is probably the most widely recognized, it is not the largest. There is some question now as to whether or not the other voucher systems could be endangered.
The largest of these, the McKay scholarships, help pay private school tuition for those students requiring special education programs. There are more than 16,000 recipients of McKay scholarships throughout the state of Florida.
Recipients of McKay scholarships are often using them to pay for private programs that directly meet the needs of students who are severely disabled. Of particular note are those private schools serving students with autistic disorders. Many state and local districts do not have the funding or personnel available to provide the intense and individualized education that these students require. In some places, publicly funded alternatives for autistic students to these private programs are nothing more than warehousing. It would actually cost more for each district to develop the resources that the private programs already have in place.
One such private school for autistic students is the Victory School in North Miami Beach. Tuition at Victory is $42,000 a year. According to one of the school’s founders, Judy Nelson, very few parents could afford the school without a subsidy. One of the parents of two autistic children, Sergio Perez, has refinanced his Pinecrest home to afford tuition, even with the vouchers. Mr. Perez said that in public school, teachers did not have the support or the staff or the programs necessary to deal with his 6 and 8 year old sons. “It was a nightmare”, he said.
There is the possibility that the McKay scholarships could be unaffected by the current ruling, as the justices cited an older program which awarded vouchers to special needs students only when the public school was unable to provide services. McKay scholarships are available to all special education students. There appears to be some disagreement among voucher opponents if this means the McKay program will be unaffected.
Florida has a third voucher program, corporate tax credit scholarships. Corporations divert some tax monies to non profit groups which turn the money over to low income families for private school tuition. Opponents of voucher programs are considering challenges to this and to McKay.
Many parents affected by the loss of the Opportunity program scholarships are expected to turn to charter schools. Both Dade and Broward counties have been experimenting with career themed academies in neighborhood schools, and with expanding magnet programs as a means of offering better choices within the system.