Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Troubled Agape Christian Academy kicked out of voucher programs for 10 years

Annie Martin Orlando Sentinel May 14, 2018

Florida provides little oversight of its scholarship programs for private schools, often called school vouchers, that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire or health records.

Agape Christian Academy and its leaders will not be allowed to receive voucher money for 10 years, the state Department of Education ruled Friday in affirming an earlier decision to remove the troubled Pine Hills school from the programs — and putting the future of the campus in jeopardy.

Last August, the department banned the school from the state’s voucher, or scholarship, programs because of missed payments to a state-mandated assessment program. The scholarship programs pay for students from low-income families and those with disabilities to attend private school.

Despite saying initially the school had no right to appeal the decision, the department allowed Agape to make its case to a hearing offer on Jan. 5. An attorney for Agape acknowledged the school had made late payments but said the 10-year ban from the state programs was too harsh. He said the school was likely to close without the state money.

On Friday, the department issued a final order on the case, saying the school will remain inelgible for voucher money. The order cited Agape’s “ongoing noncompliance” with program rules.

CEO Ingrid Bishop and the school’s attorney, Blair Jackson, did not respond to phone calls and emails from the Sentinel.

The Orlando Sentinel featured Agape in October in a series called “Schools Without Rules” that documented how about 2,000 private schools receive nearly $1 billion in scholarships, also called vouchers, with little oversight from the state.

About 115 children attended the school last year and nearly all of them used a scholarship. The school has collected $5.6 million from the programs during the past five years.

During the 15 years Agape has been open, the school has submitted fraudulent fire inspections, hired people with criminal records and failed to pay employees, according to state and court records.

The school’s most recent string of troubles started in early 2016, when the state said barred Agape from the voucher programs after saying the school had submitted fraudulent fire inspections. Within a few months, Agape reached a settlement with the department and was allowed to receive scholarship money again.

The department suspended Agape from the program again in August because it said the school wasn’t meeting the terms of that agreement, which required the school to pay $1,362 to an Oregon-based company called Northwest Evaluation Association to help the school measure students’ progress in math, reading and language.

During the January hearing, Jackson acknowledged the school had made late payments, but said the school had otherwise complied with the settlement agreement. Banning the school from the voucher programs, he said, was “harsh.”