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A Times Editorial

A voucher marketplace

By ignoring growing allegations of impropriety at six new voucher schools, state officials also ignore the education needs of poor and disabled schoolchildren.

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002

By ignoring growing allegations of impropriety at six new voucher schools, state officials also ignore the education needs of poor and disabled schoolchildren.

To understand how the new marketplace approach is working in Florida public education, let's read from a Dec. 18 memorandum that AJC 2000 Management Team Inc. issued to one of its school administrators. The subject is "Mandatory Recruitment Goals for Florida Child Program," and the memo instructs that "each of you has a specific goal to meet and you must have that goal met by Jan. 10, 2002. Your goal is 50 new students." The memo concludes in all bold letters: "No child is to start attending the school until the Corporate Office has verification of the acceptance to the Florida Child Program."

This sales directive isn't remarkable just for its brash play for public school voucher dollars or even for making poor, disabled children its targets. What is most remarkable is that the state officials handing over tax money to AJC Management don't really seem to care.

State Education Commissioner Charlie Crist is too busy running for attorney general. Education Secretary Jim Horne says "it's not totally under me yet; the department is still run by Commissioner Crist." Gov. Jeb Bush, who has led Florida's transformation into a laboratory for school privatization, wrote recently that: "Competition for children of voucher-empowered parents will ensure high standards for private schools." In other words, let the marketplace dictate.

This hands-off approach with voucher schools stands in sharp contrast to the new demands these same officials have placed on public schools. But more troubling is the extent to which the state is draining the scarce pool of education dollars in the process. Next year, roughly $60-million may be poured into this private market.

What are these dollars buying? The six schools that are operated by AJC Management provide a glimpse. The company, owned by Art and Angel Rocker, who are well-connected within Republican circles, is now drawing from two voucher programs -- a "McKay Scholarship" for disabled students and the "Florida Child" program that provides up to $50-million in direct tax rebates for vouchers to poor students. Two months ago, the Rockers estimated they would draw $5-million next year in such public money.

Most of the schools run by the Rockers are located in churches and pay their teachers as little as $10.50 an hour. In their first seven months of operation, the AJC schools have faced allegations of abusing students physically, of providing students with no textbooks or outdated ones, of failing to provide required therapy and counseling, of falsifying applications for state money. Some students have endured seven different teachers in seven months. Some parents are reported to have been paid cash to buy their silence. Teachers and administrators have quit or have been fired for their protests, and the former staff at Bellview Junction and S.L. Jones Academy in Pensacola held a press conference to air their grievances.

The Rockers deny all allegations and brand their critics as racists, Angel writing at one point: "How dare you attempt to divide our community, like house niggers from field niggers. We too sing America!"

But the AJC critics also include black educators and families who were initially drawn to the schools by the promise of opportunity for black students.

"It's wrong what they're doing," says DiAnne Taylor, the former Bellview principal. "They had no intention of delivering what they promised. It's people taking advantage of the poor."

The Rockers are pocketing public money in ways that lack all accountability. The McKay law requires parents to sign the voucher checks, but the Rockers arranged for the parents to give them power of attorney to do so. The reimbursement is also based on a quality of service, including certified, experienced teachers and a variety of specialized therapies, that the public schools provide but the Rockers don't. The law says the voucher is not to exceed the amount the school charges in private tuition, but the AJC schools claim a fictitious tuition, because few if any students pay it with private money. The schools also are accepting students under the Florida Child Program, which is limited by law to $3,500 per student, while at the same time accepting McKay Scholarships that average roughly twice that amount. How does that square with the law?

These details go to the heart of the Florida debate on education. Bush made vouchers his highest priority in his first year of office, and he has continued to support expansion of voucher programs. He says the state must provide alternatives immediately for children who "are trapped in schools that are failing them," except in this case he is ignoring the alternative he has provided. Yes, the children in Rocker schools can leave if their families think their school is unsatisfactory, but not without cost to them and taxpayers.

Hazel Allen, whose son attends Bellview, asks that very question of accountability. "If it's government money, don't you have to have someone watching how the money is spent? . . . They need to have some kind of control, and not just tell people "If you don't like it, you can leave.' "

But that, apparently, is how Florida's new educational marketplace is supposed to work. Invite students to leave their public schools, point them to places that in some cases have been created for the sole purpose of attracting tax dollars, and then let the families deal with the consequences. Maybe the market will catch up with these schools some day, in the same way the markets ultimately caught up with Enron. In this case, though, Florida's pension fund won't be the only thing to suffer. So will its public schools and some disillusioned poor and disabled schoolchildren.

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