McKay voucher supporters look to up its game

A couple weeks ago, Scott Jensen, the senior governmental affairs advisor for the American Federation for Children, came down to the Sunshine State to offer glowing praise for the state’s backing of parental choice. “Florida leads the pack,” he gushed at a state Board of Education workshop. But at the tail end of his presentation, Jensen politely singled out one program for coming up short.

The McKay voucher for students with disabilities had been a trailblazer, he said. But it could use a little more oversight.

“I want to thank the board here for taking a look at adding more accountability to this program,” he said. “We believe that more accountability will make the program stronger and even more of a national model to people around the country.”

Jensen essentially got an I’ll-second-that a few days ago from Adam Emerson, who got redefinED rolling before becoming the school choice czar at the Fordham Institute last month.

“Most participating parents (in the McKay program) declare themselves satisfied with their chosen schools, but the public knows nothing about McKay’s effectiveness,” Emerson wrote on his new blog, Choice Words. “Instead, Florida residents see press accounts of McKay students enrolling at private schools with dubious academic programs and suspicious business practices. When such reports surface, support for the initiative becomes unsettled, and some lawmakers overreact with calls demanding, for instance, state approval of textbooks and instructional materials.”

Emerson concluded: “McKay should reestablish its status as a pioneer by embracing a reasonable form of results-based accountability. Doing so would overcome the objections from critics such as Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners. ‘There’s no evidence that children with disabilities need additional education options more than any other youngsters in underperforming schools, or that vouchers address the underlying problems in special education,’ Mead argued in 2010.”

“It’s doubtful that McKay families would agree with that assessment. But in order to remain a sound and politically-viable policy option, special education vouchers need to demonstrate their effectiveness to the public. I have no doubt that they will pass the test with flying colors.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at