Kingdom Prep in Auburndale is what I call a “voucher school.” It’s a private school, largely dependent on Florida’s various privately-funded voucher schemes for its financial lifeblood. Jeb Bush’s legacy foundation, Step Up for Students, oversees it — sort of, but not really. Mostly, Step Up just makes sure Kingdom Prep gets paid.
Your Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Kelli Stargel have just decided to redefine Kingdom Prep as a public school, without any of the burdensome fake accountability like school grades or basic oversight. Here’s DeSantis’s quote:
“To me, if the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the district managed school that you’re zoned for, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to a public Magnet, a public Charter, if you take a tax credit scholarship and go to a private school or if you use an ESA for homeschool, to me that is all the public’s commitment to make sure that our kids have the best education.”
This is the intellectual framework to justify taking away your tax money from your public schools and giving it to schools like Kingdom Prep. More on that in a moment. But first, some background:
Sheriff Grady Judd: “While Pastor Tiger was a role model, he was grooming this boy…”
A few weeks ago, in early February 0f 2019, the Polk Sheriff’s Office arrested Charles “Pastor Tiger” Aguon, the 34-year-old headmaster of Kingdom Prep, on charges of lewd molestation of a student. Here is the The Ledger’s story. Read the horrifying details, as Polk Sheriff Grady Judd laid them out:
“While Pastor Tiger (Aguon) was a role model, he was grooming this boy and touching him in an inappropriate manner,” Judd said. “We are significantly concerned and curious to know if there are any other victims. We want the parents and grandparents to speak with their children, ask them questions.”
PCSO investigators conducted an emergency forensic interview with the teen, who said Aguon simulated sex with him and touched his penis numerous times, with a specific occurrence in November and another in December.
During a monitored phone call between Aguon and the boy Tuesday, the teen told Aguon he felt uncomfortable and did not like when Aguon kissed and touched him.
Aguon then asked the boy, “Oh, the loving on you?” said Judd, referencing the phone call.
After the teen said he didn’t like it when Aguon touched his private parts, kissed him and bit his lip, Aguon then said, “You know I was only messing with you,” according to the arrest affidavit.
When the teen told Aguon a second time he did not like it, Aguon then said, “I’m sorry.”
Less than two hours later, Aguon was arrested at Kingdom Preparatory School around 1:30 p.m.
Concerning the “loving on you” part, consider this from the school’s website.
How you get into a voucher school
Pastor Tiger’s arrest seems to have been the first hint of any meaningful oversight of this school. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the admissions process for Kingdom Prep, as laid out on its web page. Click to enlarge.
Note that Step 1B is to apply to Step Up For Students for a “scholarship,” otherwise known as a “voucher.” Today, these voucher programs are funded through private and corporate tax-sheltered donations.
Of course, Pastor Tiger is entitled to a vigorous legal defense and the presumption of innocence. And if you’ve contributed to one of the voucher schemes, you’re sheltering your taxes by paying for Pastor Tiger’s legal defense — if he’s using any of his former salary to pay it. Providing him with his constitutional right may provide you some comfort. Or maybe not.
In any event, if DeSantis and Stargel have their way, in the near future, taxpayers will be paying for any future Pastor Tiger to defend himself or herself with money taken away from your public schools.
Back to the Kingdom Prep application. Following the voucher interface, you have to take a screening test, give an interview, and then wait for the school to decide if you are a fit for Kingdom Prep. The final step is “meeting with headmaster.”
Considering Sheriff Judd’s words about Pastor Tiger “grooming this boy,” that’s a pretty chilling collection of final steps.
A statewide student safety crisis, with no elected officials to hold accountable
The are many voucher schools like Kingdom Prep in Polk County and Florida. I have power over none of them, which means you have no elected official to hold accountable for them. That is the difference between actual public schools and voucher schools. When horrible things happen in our schools — and they sometimes do — they become election issues for the people you choose to oversee those schools.
Nothing happens to voucher schools. Nothing but more money.
The Orlando Sentinel has documented this. It has been investigating these schools heroically. The “Schools Without Rules” report from October 2017 is absolute must reading for any responsible parent, public official, or potential donor who touches education in any way.
Its second and third paragraphs are this:
The limited oversight of Florida’s scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.
Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.
That report came out in October 2017. Every official in the Florida state government, including Kelli Stargel, Richard Corcoran, and Ron DeSantis, knows all about the Sentinel‘s reporting. They know these schools are ticking time bombs of abuse as surely as people knew Nicholas Cruz was a time bomb.
Let may say that again: “Schools Without Rules” dropped in October 2017. Its second paragraph talked about child molestation. Fifteen months later, Step Up and Kelli Stargel had done nothing — nothing — to protect the boy that Grady Judd accuses Pastor Tiger of “grooming” for molestation. They didn’t care.
Indeed, the record says no one in Tallahassee cares. Doubt me? This is also from the 15-month-old Sentinel report:
Unlike public schools, private schools, including those that accept the state scholarships, operate free from most state rules. Private school teachers and principals, for example, are not required to have state certification or even college degrees.
One Orlando school, which received $500,000 from the public programs last year, has a 24-year-old principal still studying at a community college.
Nor do private schools need to follow the state’s academic standards. One curriculum, called Accelerated Christian Education or ACE, is popular in some private schools and requires students to sit at partitioned desks and fill out worksheets on their own for most of the day, with little instruction from teachers or interaction with classmates.
And nearly anything goes in terms of where private school classes meet. The Sentinel found scholarship students in the same office building as Whozz Next Bail Bonds on South Orange Blossom Trail, in a Colonial Drive day-care center that reeked of dirty diapers and in a school near Winter Park that was facing eviction and had wires dangling from a gap in the office ceiling and a library with no books, computers or furniture.
So is this:
Florida’s approach is so hands-off that a state directory lists private schools that can accommodate students with special needs — such as autism — without evidence the schools’ staff is trained to handle disabilities.
Upset parents sometimes complain to the state, assuming it has some say over academic quality at these private schools. It does not. “They can conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate,” reads a typical response from the Florida Department of Education to a parent.
For goodness sake, Kingdom Prep is in Kelli Stargel’s district. The allegedly abused child is likely her constituent. Have you heard a peep from Kelli about this? No. Instead, her reaction is to create more Kingdom Preps with more kids interviewing with more headmasters, who may or may not prove to become Pastor Tigers.
Vouchers aren’t what you think they are
When people think of vouchers, they tend to think of scholarships to All Saints, Lakeland Christian, the Catholic schools, or Academy Prep. These are the big private schools with institutional backing.
But that’s not really what should come to mind. With the exception of Academy Prep, which explicitly wants to provide an elite private school experience to poor kids, and some of the Catholic schools, the big institutional private schools value their eliteness and exclusivity. It’s the point of being private. They don’t want vouchers at scale.
Kingdom Prep is the true face of voucher schools; 34-year-old Pastor Tiger is the true face of their leadership. I don’t fear “competing” with the Kingdom Preps of the world one iota. In and of themselves, they are not a competitive threat to public education the way elite, exclusive charter and magnets are.
But I do fear for the very vulnerable, generally politically powerless children grifted into attending these voucher schools by state malpractice. I fear for those kids the state only cares about as marketing material for its endless grift.
I still have the obligation to provide for the education and safety of those children when their schools fail or abuse them. And I take that obligation seriously, much more seriously than Kelli Stargel or Ron DeSantis do.
Put the MSD grand jury on the case
Indeed, if anyone in Florida government took their jobs seriously, they would demand that the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas grand jury expand its mandate to review Step Up for Students oversight for voucher schools. I demand it; but I’ll be ignored. That’s because the MSD grand jury is about politics, not safety.
Polk Sheriff/MSD Commissioner Grady Judd might not be ignored, though. He’s more powerful than I am. He arrested Pastor Tiger. He has seen firsthand what the failure of oversight can do to kids at voucher schools. I hope that he will join me in turning his attention to this systemic, statewide student safety crisis.
In any event, I will ask the Polk School Board to offer a resolution of support in favor of the MSD grand jury reviewing the safety of all voucher schools — and how Step Up 4 Students does or does not address it. I hope Senator Stargel chooses to join in this effort. The safety of vouchers kids matters, too, Kelli. Right?
I want to know if anyone knew anything about this alleged abuse of a child — who is almost certainly in one of your Polk public schools now — before the Sheriff’s Office knew. Did anyone at DoE? Did anyone at Step Up? Let the grand jury check on that. Surely, you’ll agree to that governor, in the name of safety and accountability. Right?
In part 2 of this, I’m going to turn to the MSD report and explain to you how Stargel/DeSantis voucher grift expansion will hinder the reforms that Sheriff Judd and his fellow MSD commissioners and state government are demanding.