“Step Up for Students” endangers good voucher schools far more than any reporter, lawmaker, or corporation

Sixty-one percent of students who receive Florida’s corporate tax credit voucher/scholarship for low income students to attend private schools abandon their scholarship within two years. It’s 75 percent within four years. See the image below and full report here, from an organization very friendly to the concept of vouchers.

A 61 percent two-year drop-out rate for any “educational” program is a horrific moral and educational failure.

Indeed, let’s do a thought experiment on this for public magnet or public charter schools, which is the public “choice” analogy to voucher schools. (Voucher schools are not public charters or magnets in any way. Sometimes the public, and even lawmakers, don’t understand the distinctions.)

Public magnets and charters both have well-documented self-selection and attrition/drop-out issues — although high drop out rates are more fundamental to charter enrollment and business models. But imagine if magnet or charter schools lost 61 percent of the kids that chose them every two years.

Would we even continue to allow them as a choice? It’s hard to imagine.

Step Up for Students: the failed state “school board” of vouchers

An organization called Step Up for Students is the unelected state “school board” of Florida voucher schools. It funds scholarships to and “oversees” the many, many bad voucher schools — and the fewer good ones, like Lakeland’s Academy Prep and Victory Christian.

SUFS is yet another failed offshoot of the Jeb industrial foundation complex. That means, of course, that it’s unelected. There are no term limits on unelected Jebworld. It’s Tuthills and Levesques all the way down, forever. You can’t vote your way out of any local voucher problem.

Step up performs no meaningful quality control over its schools; you can’t really call anyone to yell at them when your school implodes in molestation charges like Pastor Tiger’s Kingdom Prep did in Auburndale last year; and the SUFS staff won’t advocate for you if you happen to reach them with a school issue, like trying to get your records from Kingdom Prep.

In short, Step Up for Students just hands out corporate money and collects a fee so it can write blogs and market the flow of money by trying to discredit public schools saddled with the state’s corrupt “accountability” measures. It’s also telling that Step Up for Students made no effort to include its schools in the draconian unfunded safety requirements from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas law.

That’s yet another example of how the MSD law — other than the “red flag” gun seizure powers — was really about squeezing public schools and small non-profit charter schools, not protecting kids. Likewise, SUFS is not a “pro-choice” or “pro-voucher” organization; it is an anti-public schools organization. It’s about marketing and money; not education or human development or opportunity.

Indeed, Step Up for Students and its bipartisan enablers — like Gov. DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Rep. Byron Donalds, Rep. Shevrin Jones, Sen. Kelli Stargel, and Sen. Manny Diaz — look at that voucher abandonment/drop out data and respond: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Here’s another check; who is Pastor Tiger again? 

Dear SUFS, meet the free market

Vouchers are back in the news because the Orlando Sentinel reported what has been patently obvious for the entire existence of the program: many, many members of the largely “church”-based voucher provider network have written policies excluding or discriminating against LGBT children.

That revelation, which isn’t really a revelation, got the attention of big corporate donors to the program. And corporations, in recent years, have shown they’re generally unwilling to be tarred as anti-LGBT in their public expenditures of money. So many donors are pulling out.

SUFS has responded with panic and outrage at the fact that people have finally focused on these policies, which seems to be an odd reaction. The companies are just making a cold private business decision, which is causing “government school”-spouting free marketeers to have a giant sad snit. Everybody loves the free market for other people.

Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Smith from the Orlando area have an eminently reasonable bill to fix the discrimination problem. And for that, someone in the wider SUFS activist community created an Eskamani-in-white-hood KKK meme for Twitter. These are not pleasant people.

There are a lot of anti-LGBT people with money out there; and I’m not sure why SUFS doesn’t just go recruit them for private funding. Just be who you are. If, as a private school, you don’t want gay kids around; you should just own that and be honest about it and accept whatever financial consequences or benefits come with it. Don’t go snitting; it’s weak.

Moreover, I think you can expect the DeSantis courts to say that direct taxpayer-funding (as opposed to tax-credit private funding) of anti-LGBT schools is perfectly legal. The DeSantis Supreme Court already abolished local school boards, for all practical power purposes. See this article for more details. I’m not kidding.

We should all assume that taxpayer vouchers to anti-LGBT schools are legal; but that doesn’t obligate private donors/tax credit participants in any way.

Schools without rules

What I find fascinating about the donor meltdown is that it didn’t happen after the Sentinel’s Pulitizer-worthy “Schools without Rules” reporting on the voucher provider network. That was deeper, harder reporting; and it revealed how awful at education and basic safety so many Step Up for Students schools are, on top of their discrimination.

I have always considered vouchers something of an overheated, attention-sapping education side issue (like the eternal “unions: good or bad”? battle). I have always thought the political importance of vouchers is far out of proportion to their overall educational importance.

I still think that.

But I’ve also read the “Schools without Rules” reporting; confronted the Pastor Tiger situation in my own county; and then discovered the 61 percent two-year drop out rate for voucher kids. It’s a pretty logical conclusion that so few kids use the vouchers for any extended school career because the schools they get access to are largely garbage.

This has triggered my alarms for the kids and families themselves, who churn through the program at great risk and disruption to their education and developmental lives — like an educational Ponzi scheme.

Step Up for Students isn’t a voucher group; it’s a weapon aimed at the people of public education

SUFS is at the center of that Ponzi scheme. It is always, always marketing to replace the churn of vulnerable kids with more churn of vulnerable kids. It never occurs to SUFS to enhance the quality and safety of its own schools; because that is not its purpose. SUFS was conceived and still operates as a weapon against public schools and all their stakeholders. I see no evidence that it cares about its own vouchers beyond its ability to weaponize them and collect a commission.

Here’s how the Sentinel described the motivation of the SUFS parents it interviewed:

Parents opting out of public schools often cite worries about large campuses, bullying, what they call inadequate services for special-needs children and state-required testing. Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”

Behold the Florida Model at work. Strangle public schools with useless testing, fake security, and under-staffed behavioral support so SUFS can continually, negatively market “escape” to their desperate marks. These kids will then drop out of the voucher program at scale and go back to zoned public schools, where their test scores can be weaponized to start the whole process over again.

The parents that SUFS displays like props every time it gets in trouble for negligence aren’t trying to get their kids into Polk County’s All Saints or Tampa Jesuit or Jacksonville Bolles. They’re trying to get their kids into the equivalent of Kingdom Prep. That’s what a $6,700 voucher buys you. It doesn’t buy you the elite prep schools Jeb Bush’s kids attended. Real private schools sell — and parents buy — exclusivity. They don’t want vouchers.

Take a look at this story, written by voucher advocates, to see. The most common profile is a desperate parent with a child with a behavioral problem who gets to disappear from the public radar in a Pastor Tiger school. You think that’s safe?

If you’re a voucher parent, I can’t help you

These parents have no idea how little protection or recourse they have until it’s too late; and I can’t do anything to help them. And when something goes wrong at one of those schools, the same dudes — all those Tuthills — who bused those parents to Tallahassee will bail on those same parents. Believe that. That’s what happened at Kingdom Prep.

SUFS schools are not a competitive threat to public schools; but they are a minor fake “accountability” threat through the performance of the kids who come back. And they are a deep, deep threat to the vulnerable children themselves, in many ways. Again, imagine having responsibility for handing out scholarships to those vulnerable kids to that network of providers; knowing all of that; and being morally cool with it.

That’s Step Up for Students. That’s the Florida Model, to which it is fundamental. All aspects of governance are grift; everything that’s not human interaction is fraud.

Academy Prep is not Kingdom Prep; but SUFS doesn’t care

There are exceptions that prove the provider rule; and I will talk about two of them, specifically, in just a second. Some egalitarian Catholic schools are also an exception, which reflects the long, brave, and noble history of Catholic educators in Florida, going back to the Sisters of St. Joseph. And their dioceses provide reasonable organizational oversight. (Voucher opponents would do well not to lean on the Blaine amendment aspects of church/state separation. They weren’t about church/state separation; they were about hating Catholics.)

If Step Up for Students wasn’t in the way — if the Florida Model wasn’t in the way — you could put the leaders of Lakeland’s Academy Prep and Victory Christian into a room with me; and we could design a complementary, well-governed, safe, pro-public school, honorable tax credit voucher program. I would absolutely make that trade in exchange for demolishing Florida’s fraudulent, weaponized “accountability” structure and rebuilding the entire system — including “choice” — around meaningful human development.

Victory is already a great friend to public education. They do many helpful things for Polk County Schools, especially through use of their church facilities. The principal of Victory’s high school, Mark Thomas, is the former principal of Lakeland High School and public school advocate. Kids may move back and forth between the public schools and Victory; but we don’t compete.

Academy Prep is a fascinating new private school. Unlike 99.9 percent of voucher schools, Academy Prep actively seeks to mimic the “elite” private experience for non-elite kids. It’s trying to do a secular version of All Saints or Tampa Jesuit for under-capitalized kids. Tuition is about $20,000 per child, for an 11-hour day. It’s covered by a combination of the $6,700-ish Step Up for Students voucher and the private community contributions — much of it from the Jenkins Family Foundation, which contains both political supporters and opponents of mine.

I’ve toured the facility; it’s beautiful. I like its leadership. And it’s explicitly designed to prepare middle schoolers for the most rigorous college bound programs in public high schools. As founder and principal Lincoln Tamayo told me, “Most of these kids will come back to you.”

Academy Prep’s model is also impossible to scale because of the cost and infrastructure required. “We’ve built three in 20 years,” Tamayo told me. There are two other Academy Preps in the Tampa Bay area. Again, Academy Prep is a complement or enrichment of the public system — not a competitor. Or at least that’s how we should think about it.

Wait until donors realize they’re setting money on fire in a 61 percent two-year drop-out rate Ponzi scheme

But this is Florida: and for every Academy Prep or Victory Christian, you have multiple Kingdom Prep, fly-by-night grifter schools. And Step Up for Students makes no effort at all to distinguish between them. None. That’s why 75 percent of kids don’t make it to five years with vouchers.

Parents must have fraudulent, manipulated school grades for public schools — and soon to be pre-K. But voucher schools are completely caveat emptor — before, during, and after voucher use — for the most vulnerable people in our society. It’s truly disgusting.

And I would urge my friends at Victory, Academy Prep, and other serious places that depend at least in part on Step Up for Students vouchers to demand SUFS start acting like the voucher school board it is. Or get rid of it altogether and start over.

I’ll help you if I can.

Someone needs to scour the provider network; provide some basic oversight; and find ways not to build discrimination into its business model. If not, I think vouchers are doomed because they actively harm too many kids.

A 61 percent two-year drop out rate doesn’t read any better than clearly written anti-LGBT policies. Eventually corporate donors will find out they’ve been grifted, as well as made complicit in discrimination. They will come to understand that SUFS is not a pro-voucher group; it’s an anti-public education group that uses vouchers as political weapons with no concern about what happens to the kids after their parents have exhausted their public usefulness.

That makes for bad, bad PR. Not to mention toxic education and humanity.

One comment

  1. Well said. Thank you for this.

    The majority of discontent we hear from parents seeking “escape” to voucher schools surrounds:
    1) Special Education at both ends of the spectrum and all in between – having to do battle with districts to get IEP/504 and then getting schools to comply with IEP/504;
    2) Over-testing;
    3) “Common Core…” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
    4) You’ve already covered the “bullying” non-issue so well.
    We do hear from parents who leave public schools only to find most “voucher” schools can’t/won’t deliver what they promised and yes, they come back to their public schools. We also hear from parents overjoyed to have their kids free of testing, without comment to quality of education.

    Districts are strapped and everyone is doing what they can with what they have. But leadership can also pay attention to how programs are delivered on the front lines and train schools to improve their communication with parents, especially parents of kids with special needs. The culture in each district flows from the top. A campaign of genuine goodwill would go a long way to stem the discontent and improve school climate – and that’s free.