Schools For Scandal: Fla. Voucher Program Proves A Boon To Con Artists

Florida's voucher plan is rife with fraud.

It’s an article of faith among school voucher proponents that if we move toward a privatized system of education, competition will spur the creation of excellent schools.

That’s the theory. How does it work out in real life?

Not so well. In Florida, which has been using students with physical and learning disabilities as subjects in a privatization experiment, parents are learning the hard way that many private schools don’t really care about educating children. Their owners are just interested in making a fast buck.

A shocking report from Miami New Times examines a number of private schools that are living off taxpayer funds thanks to the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program. What the newspaper found isn’t pretty.

The program doles out lots of taxpayer money to religious and other private schools, but it doesn’t provide any significant oversight. As New Times put it, “There is no accreditation requirement for McKay schools. And without curriculum regulations, the DOE can’t yank back its money if students are discovered to be spending their days filling out workbooks, watching B-movies, or frolicking in the park. In one ‘business management’ class, students shook cans for coins on street corners.”

Other abuses the paper uncovered include:

* South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy in Oakland Park: The school’s 200 students moved from one dingy location to another before a fire marshal declared one building “unfit” for use. Some classes were held in public parks. Textbooks were scarce, and the music teacher noted that there were no instruments in the school.

* Hope Academy in Homestead: Three staff members were found to have criminal records, two for drug offenses. A woman is suing the school, saying officials did nothing after her disabled daughter was molested by a classmate.

* Muskateer’s (sic) Academy in Hialeah: The couple who founded the school were indicted for stealing information about students from other schools, claiming they were enrolled in their school and pocketing the tuition money. Sentenced to probation, they have reportedly fled the state.

* Faith Christian Academy, Polk County: The sisters who founded the school were accused of bilking the state of $200,000 through false enrollments. They were convicted and sent to prison.

* Academic High, Boca Raton: The school’s curriculum consists of having students fill out workbooks every day for five and a half hours.

The most heart-breaking stories in the article, however, deal with poor, disabled youngsters whose parents unwittingly enroll them in fly-by-night schools hoping they’ll earn diplomas.

As New Times puts it, shady school operators prey on the downtrodden.

“Any combination of the words preparatory, Christian, hope, academy, and perhaps Zion usually appear in the name,” writes reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts. “The administrators make their arrival to a neighborhood known by leafleting and billboarding housing projects. Or they show up at Sunday services and prowl for old ladies wearing church hats and toting children.... The inevitable morning comes when those students show up for class to find only an empty store for rent, or they attempt to transfer to another high school or matriculate to college and are informed their credits are worthless.”

Kirk Brown, who runs a non-profit for the disadvantaged in Fort Lauderdale, is accustomed to dealing with these families.

“They have that look of somebody whose house just got robbed,” Brown said. “These schools are run by the worst kind of parasites. All these kids have is their education, and that’s what they’re trying to steal.”

You can’t help but notice this pattern in voucher plans. It happened in Milwaukee, where fly-by-night schools (at least one of which was run by an ex-con) sprang up to take advantage of a voucher law. It happened in Cleveland after a voucher plan was established for that city. (One school there, Golden Christian Academy, was “educating” children by having them watch videos all day.)

None of these abuses come to light because of government oversight – there isn’t any of that. They come to light because reporters did some digging.

In Florida, more than 1,000 “scholarship” schools are accepting tax money under the McKay program. About 65 percent of them are religious. In light of the New Times article, it’s time for the state to get serious and put this public money back in the public schools where it belongs.