The state does not track the academic progress of students on McKay or corporate tax credit vouchers, the schools' curricula or the teachers' qualifications.
That is pretty much a prescription for fraud
By S.V. Date
Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
Thursday, July 01, 2004
TALLAHASSEE — Days after lawmakers concluded their annual legislative session this spring without passing a school voucher "accountability" bill, Gov. Jeb Bush's education officials declared that it didn't matter.
They already had implemented many of the record-keeping and auditing reforms on their own, without need for legislation, they told the state Board of Education. Education Commissioner Jim Horne, who was appointed by Bush, accused opponents of "school choice" of harping on problems that were a year old and that he said the department would not let happen again.
But a year after The Palm Beach Post started uncovering evidence of neglect and abuses in the state voucher programs, state oversight of the programs remains largely the same: minimal.
Jerry Hill, the state attorney for Polk County who conducted a seven-month investigation that ended Tuesday with fraud and racketeering charges against seven Christian school employees in Bartow, said he was surprised at how few controls the state had over its voucher money. He suggested that lawmakers develop ways to audit how taxpayer money is spent on vouchers.
"I think to do otherwise means that education money is being diverted to criminal enterprises," he said Wednesday. But Bush's office and Department of Education officials said the arrests prove their system works. DOE spokesman MacKay Jimeson repeatedly referred to the arrests as "accountability in action."
Hill said that interpretation troubled him. Arresting scammers after they have wasted tax money proves that the system is not working, not the other way around, he said. "Well, the criminal justice system is working just fine. But that misses the point entirely," he said. "The point is, this sort of thing should have been nipped in the bud."
Bush joined groups pushing public money for private schools nearly a decade before he became governor in 1998. The state's first voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarships, which are for students from repeatedly failing schools, was a part of Bush's "A-plus" education plan that he pushed into law in 1999.
When The Post began a series of articles in 2003 examining the various voucher programs and finding little oversight, Bush and his allies said there were no problems and that parental interest in their own children's educations would supply all the "accountability" that was necessary.
That changed only after several articles about three problem schools: a Tampa Islamic school named in a federal terrorism indictment that had received $350,000 in corporate tax credit voucher money; a Boynton Beach home-school consultant getting McKay vouchers, which are for disabled students; and a bankrupt Ocala man who had collected more than a quarter-million dollars in voucher money but had not given out even one voucher.
Bush and Horne unveiled a new "sworn compliance form" for all voucher-taking schools, promising that it and more watchful management of the programs would improve oversight and end abuses at private schools.
But the form relies on self-reported information. There is no independent verification unless a complaint is filed, and the department does not conduct site visits because Bush's top education aide, Patricia Levesque, shot down the idea last fall.
Betty Mitchell, head of the Faith Christian Academy in Bartow, filled out the form and turned it in on time. Her completed form prompted no DOE investigation of her — even though Horne claimed at the unveiling of the form that it would let him distinguish the real schools from the scam artists.
Had a Bank of America examiner not been personal friends with an investigator in Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher's office and pointed out the string of curious state checks that had been deposited in the account of Bartow's "Deliverance Worldwide Crusade Ministry Inc.," state officials might to this day not have known that a school had received $53,000 in McKay vouchers for students who were not even there.
Polk County prosecutors Tuesday charged Mitchell and her six co-workers with stealing more than $200,000 from the state and federal governments and various private businesses. They all bonded out of jail Wednesday.
There have been other voucher system problems. In the past four months, among the problems The Post has reported were:
n Two voucher-taking schools in Jacksonville were simultaneously being run by people who were already being paid publicly financed salaries to run charter schools. One of the directors listed identical addresses and phone numbers for both of her schools.
n Another McKay voucher-taking school in Jacksonville saw its state money cut off after department officials found that 14 students getting McKay vouchers there were actually enrolled in local public schools. The state learned of this only after a parent complained about her inability to transfer her McKay voucher to a different private school.
n The operator of a failed Boca Raton charter school that still owed the Palm Beach County School District $126,000 reopened his school as a private school and then received $22,000 in McKay vouchers.
n The operator of a Tallahassee school for dyslexic children nearly doubled her per-student tuition in the years since the McKay program was created — so that parents now receiving a voucher will be paying as much out of pocket, about $5,000, as they were before vouchers were created.
Bush's press office also continues to defend the voucher programs.
"The vast majority of schools are providing a quality education for Florida's students, who are learning at unprecedented levels," Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said Tuesday in responding to the Bartow arrests. Asked what proof the state had of this, DiPietre did not respond.
The state does not track the academic progress of students on McKay or corporate tax credit vouchers, the schools' curricula or the teachers' qualifications. "For all the positives they keep talking about these schools, they're getting overwhelmed by corruption and people trying to scam the system," said Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein of Delray Beach.
Klein said only radical changes to oversight rules that require independent verification of voucher school information, including site visits, would prevent future investigations and arrests. He said only testing of students and review of teachers could show whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth.
"How else can you even determine whether they're in a worthwhile program or not?" he asked.
Oh, by the way, speaking of bad school management: