McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos

McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos
Michael McElroy
Christopher Vaughn spent three years in a McKay high school before discovering his credits were worthless.

From June 2006 through November 2010, the woefully cash-strapped Florida Department of Education (DOE) forked over $2.057 million to Julius Brown, former middle school basketball coach and cofounder of a string of obscure sports apparel businesses.

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."

It's like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash: Dole out millions to anybody calling himself an educator. Don't regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.

For optimal results, do this in Florida, America's fraud capital.

Now watch all the different ways the flimflam men scramble for the cash.

Once a niche scholarship fund, the McKay program has boomed exponentially in the 12 years since it was introduced under Gov. Jeb Bush, with $148.6 million handed out in the past 12 months, a 38 percent increase from just more than five years ago.

There are 1,013 schools — 65 percent of them religious — collecting McKay vouchers from 22,198 children at an average of $7,144 per year.

The lion's share of that pot ends up in South Florida. Miami-Dade received $31.8 million, more than any other county in the state, and Broward was second with $18.3 million. Palm Beach ranked fifth, with its schools collecting $6.9 million.

But there's virtually no oversight. According to one former DOE investigator, who claimed his office was stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics, the agency failed to uncover "even a significant fraction" of the McKay crime that was occurring.

Administrators who have received funding include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.

Even in investigations where fraud, including forgery and stealing student information to bolster enrollment, is proven, arrests are rare. The thieves are usually allowed to simply repay the stolen loot in installments — or at least promise to — and continue to accept McKay payments.

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.

And public schools now apparently help with the recruiting. Failing kids, who would sabotage all-important standardized testing scores, are herded en masse to dubious McKay schools.

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