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Disabled voucher program

Imagine a school for disabled students that uses outdated books with the wrong grade levels, that fails to deliver required therapeutic services, that pays its teachers as though they were part time, that endures multiple allegations of student mistreatment, that has parents pulling their children from the school and the executive director and guidance counselor and numerous teachers quitting or being fired for protesting the conditions.

Now imagine that this school is publicly funded, and that state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush, self-proclaimed champions of accountability, decide to look the other way.

Welcome to the emerging story of Florida's newest and largest voucher program. Less than a year after the Legislature decided to pay for any disabled student to attend a private school, the state is expected to write $25-million in checks this year. The saga of Bellview Junction in Pensacola demonstrates how little the results seem to matter.

Bellview Junction is one of six schools in Florida, including Bethel Metropolitan Christian Academy in St. Petersburg, that are operated by Art and Angel Rocker, Republican Party activists who have learned that vouchers can be a lucrative business. The Rockers pocket $1 of every $15 the state pays out in disabled scholarships this year, and few, if any, of the families of their students pay tuition. The student handbook doesn't even mention a tuition amount, noting only that "the Management Team will notify parents when it is time to sign the vouchers."

In other words, these schools are public. Yet the law that governs them, which was authored by Senate President John McKay, attaches no obligations to that money.

Last fall, the pastor of Bethel was summarily fired as dean when he questioned why the students had no books and no special services. Some parents alleged their children were physically abused. The state was forced to acknowledge that it wrote voucher checks directly to the Rockers, and not the families, in direct violation of the law. The result: Crist announced he would form a task force to investigate, except the "force" ended up being four department employees and the task was focused more on absolving the state of any liability should parents sue.

The latest Rocker explosion, though, may not be so easy for Crist and Bush to ignore. In the case of Bellview Junction and S.L. Jones Academy in Pensacola, the employees, including the former executive director, held a press conference to air their frustrations. They have written the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, detailing the way the school is being run. Among the allegations: The state paid for specialized services that were never provided; the counseling director was ordered to endorse empty guidance counseling sheets; the applications for state funding were falsified; parents gave the school power of attorney to sign financial papers for them; employees were reprimanded for notifying police about a possible case of child abuse; parents were paid cash by the Rockers to silence their complaints.

"You have to understand that I support the voucher program and want it to work," says Ed Anderson, the former executive director for the Rockers' management company. "But a lot of people believe the DOE is in bed with the Rockers. They simply wouldn't listen to anything we said."

Neither will Bush or the Legislature. The law that establishes the "McKay scholarships" all but invites fraud. The state offers a lucrative payout for each student based on a broad inventory of specialized services the public schools now provide, except that the private schools face no such requirements. Their teachers don't have to be certified or even have college degrees. They don't have to follow any specified curriculum or test students. They need no prior track record. In fact, the state itself helps supply students to schools that pop up overnight. Crist sent letters to 280,000 families last year, inviting them to try the alternative private schools and providing a list. Free advertising, complete with the state seal.

Two months ago, Bush and Crist were quick to praise a survey by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, that ranked Florida No. 1 in the nation in the amount of public subsidies it provides for private schools. Bush said the so-called Educational Freedom Index "provides further evidence that Florida is truly making a positive difference in providing greater educational choice for Floridians and improving student academic achievement."

But the No. 1 ranking was owed to the dollars that are exchanging hands, not to the lessons being learned. In the Rocker schools and all other private schools serving disabled students this year, Bush has little idea whether the money is being well spent or the students well served.

To its credit, the FDLE is now on the case, interviewing parents and teachers and reviewing records. But the criminal investigation itself raises a question about the state's rush to privatize parts of the public education system. Are the Rockers breaking the law, or following it precisely as was intended?