by By Laura J. Tomkins, MS
Education Advocate with Open Doors Special Education Advocacy, LLC

“The hallmark of a healthy society has always been measured by how it cares for the disadvantaged.”
-Joni Eareckson Tada

There is always hope. Hope sometimes appears in the beautiful rays of the morning sunlight, even when it looks like the night will never end. Sometimes hope appears in the form of a coincidence, like when you just happen to be walking through a room and you overhear a radio show or T.V. commercial talk about a great school that works with children with your kid’s disability

This kind of ‘coincidence’ happened in our family.  So I am grateful, that after years of good and bad special education teachers, attending disability conferences, and advocating for my child with severe dyslexia and ADHD in IEP meetings, that I accidently heard about a school that used the specialized instruction called the Barton System and Lindamood Bell programs.  And this school took the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

My daughter attended this small, private school for students with ADHD and language processing difficulties from 5th grade through 8th grade.  She went from being a little girl, who was angry and crying, telling me that she doesn’t want to go back to school because her teacher made her read out loud in front of the class and her classmates laughed at her, to becoming a disciplined student. The good news is that she now goes to a community college, after graduating from a public high school in Orange County with a 3.5 GPA, and loves to read.

The McKay Scholarship program helped my daughter; it can help your child, too. It is a wonderful thing to be able to make a difference in the life of another person.  The McKay Scholarship Program has made a difference in the lives of thousands of students with disabilities for over 16 years. It was started by a man named John M. McKay, who was former President of the Florida State Senate and had the vision to help children with disabilities. According to the Foundation for Excellence in Education:  “More than 26,000 eligible students with disabilities currently participate in the McKay Scholarship Program. Research conducted by the Manhattan Institute showed that over 92% of participants were satisfied or very satisfied with their McKay Scholarship schools.”

To answer some basic questions about this Program, we can examine the following definitions which were taken from the floridaschoolchoice.org website page entitled McKay Scholarship Program FAQs:

What is the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program?

The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, originally created in 1999, provides scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice. Students with disabilities include K-12 students who are documented as having an intellectual disability; a speech or language impairment; a hearing impairment, including deafness; a visual impairment, including blindness; a dual sensory impairment; an emotional or behavioral disability; a specific learning disability, including, but not limited to, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or developmental aphasia; a traumatic brain injury; a developmental delay; or autism spectrum disorder.”

Who is eligible for a McKay Scholarship?

Any parent of a public school student with a disability who has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 accommodation plan may receive a McKay Scholarship if the student meets the following requirements:…”

It is empowering to know that we as parents can have choices about where our children go to school; that the local public school is not the only option. In my daughter’s case, she had an IEP (her documented disability was “specific learning disability”), she had spent the prior year in attendance at a Florida public school, and she was not making progress in her local public school.  It says on the greatschools.org website, “If you are dissatisfied with the academic progress your learning disabled student is making on his IEP, you have the option to transfer him to another school, public or private. You can apply for a John M. McKay Scholarship, which is equal to the amount per student the state would have funded the student’s previous school or the cost of the private school, whichever is less. Your child must have attended a Florida public school for at least one year before deciding to transfer”.  The amount of money your child may receive under the McKay Scholarship Program has a direct relationship to the cost of the level of all the educational services at their assigned public school. In order to determine this, the child’s school district takes into account what is called the matrix of services. The matrix of Services is the document used to determine the cost factor for each student that receives Exceptional Student Education services and is based on the student’s IEP. Simply put, the child’s matrix number is the amount of funding that your child is eligible to receive to attend the private school that you are considering. The higher the number, the higher the amount of funding. You can find the Matrix of Services document attached to the back of your child’s IEP.

In general, this is the process that I followed to assist my daughter:

  • I researched public charter schools and private schools that participated in the McKay Scholarship program and served students with my child’s disabilities.
  • I filed intent to participate in the McKay Scholarship Program and chose the private school option.
  • I checked my child’s intent and eligibility status.
  • My daughter was found eligible for a McKay Scholarship.
  • I withdrew her from public school.
  • I selected and enrolled her in a participating private school.
  • I complied by the private school’s policies.
  • I was responsible for authorizing the payment of her McKay Scholarship  to the school.
  • I provided her transportation to and from her private school.
  • We were aware that she would no longer have the McKay Scholarship after she returned to a public high school.

The McKay Scholarship Program is what is known as a voucher program.  “A voucher allows parents to use public funds to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition. Vouchers are created and distributed by state governments, in most cases…The John McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program offers vouchers to students with disabilities and can be used to attend a private school or another public school that’s not their mandated public school (so they could go to another county or a school with a better program for, say, autism). Any parent of a student with special needs can apply; there are no income requirements or limits to how many students can get vouchers.” according to Becky Vevea at greatschools.org.  It is not the only voucher program out there for students with disabilities.  Last year, a bill was signed into law in the State of Florida allowing parents of students with certain disabilities more education choices. This other voucher program is called the Florida Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA), and is available to students with the following disabilities: Down syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Williams syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome, plus others.  For homeschooling parents, this voucher program allows you access to the scholarship dollars for educating your child in a home setting, if he or she has one of the above-listed disabilities, which the McKay Scholarship Program doesn’t allow.

Finally, it is recommended to make an informed decision and get as much advice as possible in choosing the right school for your child with disabilities. Talk with your family, friends, your child’s regular or special education teacher, disability organizations, education advocates, greatschools.org, brightfeats.com, and floridaschoolchoice.org websites. Do your homework and use a guide like the one put out on the Florida Department of Education website, http://www.fldoe.org, Florida Department of Education, Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, “Choosing a School for Your Child in Florida”.  For further information, just go to the floridaschoolchoice.org website or contact their toll-free Information Hotline: 1-800-447-1636. If you are an Orange County parent, then you can go to the ocps.net website or contact: District McKay Instructional Lead, Amy McCormick; District McKay Staff, Sabrina Britt or Christine Stumpf, Email:  ocps.mckay@ocps.net, District McKay Office:  (407) 317-3275.

Now, isn’t it amazing how God orchestrates ‘coincidences’ in our lives?  I am thankful for the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. By the way, this week just happens to be National School Choice Week.  Go and celebrate!

Laura J. Tomkins is the Education Advocate for Open Doors Special Education Advocacy, LLC. She spent her early professional career working in the field of private and public rehabilitation, and became involved in the field of special education advocacy while parenting children with learning disabilities and ADHD. A native Chicagoan, she received a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Administration and Services from the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale. Reach her atlaura@opendrspedadvo.com or (407)575-4051.