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Fraud & abuse in FL voucher schools (updated)

June 27, 2011

I nearly vomited* while reading the Miami New Times’ account of some of the horrors taking place in Florida’s poorly regulated voucher school system, under the McKay scholarship program that gives tuition vouchers to special needs students. Abuses like these are a prime example of why it is so important to have a robust, healthy public school system, with real oversight by officials who are directly accountable to the public. De-regulating that system doesn’t typically encourage innovation, as privatization proponents argue; at best, most of these schools do no better than the schools with which they’re meant to compete. But often, de-regulation does encourage fraud. (According to the article, administrators receiving tax-payer funds for voucher schools include “criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.”)

An excerpt from this chilling article (emphasis added):

…The money was in the form of tuition vouchers for kids with physical and learning disabilities to attend the South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy, the Oakland Park K-12 private school of which Brown — a looming and lean former basketball pro with a slug-like mustache — was founder, president, principal, athletic director, and boys’ basketball coach.

As is customary with schools that receive the vouchers, provided by the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program, the DOE didn’t inquire about Brown’s curriculum or visit South Florida Prep’s campus to make sure it was safe for schoolchildren. In Florida, private schools essentially go unregulated, even if they’re funded by taxpayer cash. South Florida Prep also received at least $236,000 from a state-run tax-credit scholarship for low-income kids.

While the state played the role of the blind sugar daddy, here is what went on at South Florida Prep, according to parents, students, teachers, and public records: Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

The teachers were mostly in their early 20s. An afternoon for the high school students might consist of watching a VHS tape of a 1976 Laurence Fishburne blaxploitation flick —Cornbread, Earl and Me — and then summarizing the plot. In one class session, a middle school teacher recommended putting “mother nature” — a woman’s period — into spaghetti sauce to keep a husband under thumb. “We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

In May 2009, two vanloads of South Florida Prep kids were on the way back from a field trip to Orlando when one of the vehicles flipped along Florida’s Turnpike. A teacher and an 18-year-old senior were killed. Turns out another student, age 17 and possessing only a learner’s permit, was behind the wheel and had fallen asleep. The families of the deceased and an insurance company are suing Brown for negligence.

Meanwhile, Brown openly used a form of corporal punishment that has been banned in Miami-Dade and Broward schools for three decades. Four former students and the music teacher Norris recall that the principal frequently paddled students for misbehaving. In a complaint filed with the DOE in April 2009, one parent rushed to the school to stop Brown from taking a paddle to her son’s behind.

“He said that maybe if we niggas would beat our kids in the first place, he wouldn’t have to,” the mother wrote of Brown. “He then proceeded to tell me that he is not governed by Florida school laws.”

He wasn’t far off. The DOE couldn’t remove South Florida Prep from the McKay program, says agency spokesperson Deborah Higgins, “based on the school’s disciplinary policies and procedures.”

*ETA: A contributor to (see the pingbacks, listed in the comments) apparently took issue with my declaring that the situations depicted in this article made me almost puke. My apologies for being graphic, but that is the full-on, 100% truth, friend! Did you miss the part of the story where one of the un-credentialed “teachers” hired by one of these schools talked to students about menstruating into someone’s food? ‘Cause I didn’t!

Yep, reading about poor special-needs children being beaten and used for profit makes me nauseous. Apparently, I have a weak tummy…or a strong sense of outrage!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 6:17 pm

    Thank you again for posting the TRUTH about what’s going on in Florida.

  2. Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
    June 27, 2011 7:37 pm

    Thank you for reporting the abuse of children and taxpayer funds. This is what happens when idealogues (aka Republicans) get ahold of state legislatures.

    Having said that, I hope that we don’t lump all non-traditional schools that receive taxpayer funds into the same mix. Charter schools are often demonized as leaching resources (teachers, students, families, money) away from traditional public schools, without having to adhere to the same regulations. I can only speak for North Carolina, but Charter schools here are actually held to a higher standard of student performance and receive less money per student than our traditional brethren. In NC public schools, it is the not-so-unspoken rule that students are not tested for learning disabilities before they are in 3rd grade. Language disabilities (not including articulation) don’t exist. Because of this, there are thousands of 3rd graders (particularly poor, minority boys) who get to third grade and cannot read. They never make up the difference and they become the problem children of the school until they eventually drop out at age 16. Even though there is evidence of the struggle in Kindergarten, our traditional public schools pass these students along with little to no additional support. It’s a travesty. So, while I feel for those who suffer at the hands of these criminals in Florida, it needs to be stated that in a lot of places, public schools are not getting the job done for many of our neediest students. And that’s been going on a long, long time.

    Dan Middleman
    Charter School administrator
    Special Education Teacher

    • June 27, 2011 7:53 pm

      To me, this piece isn’t about non-traditional schools being bad so much as it’s about an appalling lack of regulation. Public schools are not perfect, but there is a public accountability system in place that typically prevents these kinds of abuses. If an institution is going to receive public money, it should be vetted, so that we don’t end up with fly-by-night operations preying on the neediest kids and communities.

      Yes, it’s a problem that far too many students have been miseducated in our public school system, which is why the money being funneled into shady programs like these should be spent improving and expanding quality programming in well-run public schools.

  3. kmlisle permalink
    June 27, 2011 8:47 pm

    I know of a charter school in my Fla own district where there are no materials including texts, teachers are paid less and have fewer benefits. The money apparently is going into the “owner’s” pockets even though it is a public school. I learned about this when we were giving a science workshop and one of the teachers from that school attended and described his working conditions which he said were deteriorating because there were new owners/managers even more focused on their own pocket books. And all this is perfectly legal in Florida!

    • Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
      June 29, 2011 3:52 pm

      That is a shame (and a sham). It’s clear that the state legislature is not really interested in protecting it’s charter school children or its taxpayers. In North Carolina, there is a great amount of oversight of charters. Every teacher must be Highly Qualified. We get our finances audited every year. Our Special Education program is audited every two years and our test scores are looked at very closely every year. Even though we are not up for renewal for quite a few years, we understand that we could be shut down relatively quickly if we don’t have our house in order. That’s the way it should be everywhere. But having lived in Florida for six years, I understand how things work down there. I feel for all the students and hard working teachers down there.

      • June 29, 2011 4:04 pm

        Right. While I think the difference you cited is one reason I prefer charters to vouchers, I’m also pretty shocked that they have such poor regulations over private schools. To me, a child should not have to go to public school in order to have the right *not *to be paddled. That should be guaranteed everywhere. There should be minimum standards for background checks, buildings, etc. regardless of governance.

        In this case, though, it seems the biggest issue is that these people have realized that they can practically get away with anything– while collecting public dollars– because they’re working with poor, vulnerable kids. That’s the most disgusting part of all of this– we don’t see this kind of fraud in the private schools serving wealthier/whiter communities.

  4. Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
    June 29, 2011 4:07 pm

    Here is the response I posted to that writer at onlineschools:

    Rather than focus on the word choice (in this case “vomit”) you should be outraged at the lack of accountability in the state of Florida. Is this how tax dollars should be spent? As a charter school administrator I am appalled that the Florida legislature has such lax standards for where they choose to put the people’s money. The blogger you site has no impact on the education of children in Florida. The school she writes about certainly does. The fact that you focus on the words of a blogger rather than the actual issue makes you and your opinion irrelevant.

  5. November 25, 2011 2:22 pm

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  1. A School Voucher Program That Makes You Vomit

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