Florida's McKay Scholarship Sends $149 Million Into an Unregulated Abyss

If the phrase private school conjures up mental images of idyllic campuses of ivy and brick, you haven't spent much time slogging through some of the two-bit institutions that are steadily infesting the state.

Florida's McKay Scholarship program, which doled out $149 million in the past 12 months, is at heart a good concept: The state picks up tuition for disabled kids to go to private school. The problem, as detailed in a cover story for New Times' upcoming issue, is the total and grievous lack of oversight for the schools collecting that money.

From the story, here's an example of the sort of dangerous and chaotic private schools that will pop up when state money is offered with virtually no strings attached. This one's the K-12 South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy, in Oakland Park. The McKay fund -- meaning taxpayers -- gave founder, president, principal, athletic director, and basketball coach Julius Brown $2.057 million over four years of the school's existence.

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 buildings, including second-floor office space in a dingy strip mall, 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 state "had no legal authority" to remove South Florida Prep from the McKay program, says DOE spokesperson Deborah Higgins, "based on the school's disciplinary policies and procedures."

The best part: Thanks to legislation passed last month that makes kids with anything from asthma to peanut allergies eligible for a scholarship originally intended for children with learning and physical disabilities, the fund could potentially quadruple, with no additional oversight.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gus Garcia-Roberts