Voucher tax money follows the grift, not the child: a case study

A "Sparrow Academy" experience demonstrates why the Step Up for Students voucher school "marketplace" needs a grand jury, a Grady Judd task force, and fundamental reform -- not an expansion.

I’ll be referring to the mother in this article by her initials, CS. And I’m using the pseudonym “Terry” for her son.

On April 1, CS received a strange note about her son’s “McKay” special needs voucher from the school secretary of Lakeland’s Sparrow Academy. Sparrow is a voucher school with 100 percent special needs/ESE enrollment that Terry had formerly attended. You can see some of Sparrow’s marketing content above.

Good morning, I was about to put [Terry’s] packet in the mail when the scholarship checks arrived. If it would be OK when you come to sign the check can I give you his packet?  There isn't school tomorrow, Good Friday.

Sparrow principal Vance Linholm had kicked Terry out of school via text on March 16, two weeks before that email. I’ll show you that text in a second. Since that day, CS had been struggling to get any documentation of Terry’s performance and discipline record for his 18 months or so with the school. She had been going back and forth with the secretary. Now, the school was saying it would give her a packet of his work “when you come to sign the check” — weeks after the school had dismissed Terry.

The money follows the student. LOL

“The money follows the child” is a well-worn cliche of voucher grifters like Jeb Bush and Kelli Stargel and Richard Corcoran and basically all Republican and a few Democratic legislators.

I’ve never been sure what happens to a voucher check when a student leaves a voucher school. So I suggested to CS that she respond to that email above by quoting that cliche. CS told Sparrow her understanding is that “voucher money follows the child” — as we’re always told by politicians and Step Up for Students.

Here is the response she got the next day. Apparently, any understanding that the voucher “follows the child” is a lie:

Hi, When we receive a McKay check for a disenrolled student we are required to return it to the state. I mailed [Terry’s] packet yesterday so it is on its way.

Let me know if you need anything else.

I’m not naming the poor secretary having this correspondence. I don’t scapegoat low-level people. But let’s be very clear about this: Sparrow’s position as a school was come sign this check over to us after we’ve kicked out your son until CS said the money follows the child.

Then it became:

Hi, When we receive a McKay check for a disenrolled student we are required to return it to the state.

The government, such as it is, will have to decide if Sparrow Academy’s first email suborned fraud against an inherently corrupt state program — if such a thing is even possible. I’m not a cop or prosecutor. But how many thousands and thousands and thousands of times, do you think, after kids have been booted or have escaped from a voucher school in Florida, have those schools gotten “scholarship” checks endorsed and deposited? Or have been booted or escaped after the checks were deposited?

So let’s be clear: taxpayer-funded voucher money — which steals morally every day from the capacity of real public schools — follows the grift, not the child.

Indeed, when CS enrolled Terry in her zoned public school because Sparrow cut her family loose without warning, she did not realize she needed to tell the school that Terry has McKay. As a result, she’s been informed that Terry has now lost McKay for a year because of some strange rule preventing the money from “following the child.”

Meanwhile, the check meant for her child will soon be retuned to the pot of money that will be used in the giant emerging griftopia cauldron called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that the Legislature is creating. It won’t follow Terry anywhere.

“I have no other teacher or class to move [Terry] into”

Sparrow Academy bills itself as “a great place for children with behavior and attention deficit disorders, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder.”

These were the precise diagnoses that Terry presented. CS is the first to admit that her child’s behaviors are challenging. That’s the precise reason she used her McKay voucher to pay for the specialized program Sparrow advertised. Terry was classified as “Matrix Code 252” in the McKay program. That gave her a $7,817 voucher to pay for most of the $10,300 tuition for Sparrow.

The fact that Sparrow actually has a tuition higher than the value of a voucher — and that CS had to pay the rest — suggests Sparrow is probably as good a voucher school as you’re likely to find. Most voucher schools are funded entirely by vouchers, which is a dead giveaway of scamming.

On the other hand, 100 percent ESE Sparrow also takes non-ESE general education vouchers, which I would consider, as a shopping parent, a red-blinking indicator of trouble.

But let’s assume Sparrow is not a scam.

CS and Terry’s experience shows you how bad even the “best” voucher schools really are. Indeed, see the dismissal text below from Principal Vance Linholm. He sent this text about 90 minutes before a meeting CS had tried to set for months with faculty and principal. Note the reasoning for getting rid of Terry.

I just came out of a meeting with [Terry’s] teachers. Unfortunately, they do not feel as if they have the skills needed to help [Terry] be successful. I have worked with them and offered suggestions however they do not feel that they would be able to meet his needs,

I am torn between my personal desire to see [Terry] be successful at Sparrow and the contractual obligations I have to my staff. Unfortunately I have no other teacher or class to move [Terry] into. Therefore I have no other option but to dismiss him from Sparrow Academy.

I want to wish [Terry] the best of luck in the future and also know that I will continue to pray for your family.

I am truly heartbroken at this decision. Please know that I have done everything within my abilities to ensure [Terry’s] success.

What if Sparrow Academy was a roofing company?

Vance Linholm’s dismissal text directly contradicts how Sparrow sells itself.

So let’s imagine Sparrow Academy was a roofing company that advertised its ability to put a roof on your house. Let’s call this fictitious company “Not Really Sparrow Roofing,” so as not to cause problems for anyone legitimate. Imagine you hired Not Really Sparrow Roofing based on the roofing capabilities it advertised.

Let’s say workers throw some tar paper and shingles on top of your house and hammer in some nails; but after a while, they tell you the angle of your roofline is just too hard. “We’re going to quit now because we’re not actually able to build the roof that we said we could,” they say.

The owner and operator of Not Really Sparrow Roofing adds:

I am truly heartbroken at this decision. Please know that I have done everything within my abilities to build your roof.

Then, Not Really Sparrow Roofing takes the roofing materials you’ve already paid for with them when they leave your half-built roof haphazardly arranged atop your house. You spend the next few weeks trying to get those materials back so that a new contractor can use them.

And then Not Really Sparrow Roofing says:

By the way, you owe us thousands of dollars. So when you come to pick up the materials you long ago paid for, you need to pay us more, too.

How about background-checking Ron DeSantis’ “public” voucher schools, Sheriff Judd?

In construction, would you consider Not Really Sparrow Roofing a criminal enterprise?

Would High Sheriff Grady Judd do robocalls warning of its fraud and scamming and attack the shameless politicians that enable it? Would people get arrested?

Well, in “choice” education reality, Sparrow Academy is one of the better voucher schools. Really. And there is no law. Grifting does not appear to be illegal.

Yet, Grady’s great allies Ron DeSantis and Kelli Stargel literally define Sparrow as a “public” school and want to dump much more of your money into it. You, the taxpayer, are funding Sparrow already — directly and indirectly.

Sheriff Judd recently sent detectives all over the country to do extreme “background” checks on Polk's public school superintendent candidates that went far far beyond personal or criminal behavior. Perhaps the sheriff does not understand that the new superintendent will have responsibility for all the grifted voucher kids that escape back to public schools from voucher schools (61 percent within two years for the FTC voucher program) — or get booted by text.

An impartial sheriff concerned enough with public education quality to unleash the intrusive power of the state on individuals applying to lead the Polk School district would have a task force roaming the voucher grifters right now.

Remember sheriff, your ally DeSantis himself said it:

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.

Sheriff, will you take DeSantis at his word and bring the power of the state to bear on Florida’s Jeb Crow voucher system in Polk? I know. LOL. The sheriff is very much like all the “liberal reform” allies of Jeb Bush and Arne Duncan and Barack Obama in his indifference to the thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of children and families grifted by tax-funded Jeb Crow.

The Grady Judd voucher task force could figure out what teacher “education requirements” means

It’s not clear why Sparrow bills itself as “a great place for children with behavior and attention deficit disorders, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder” if its teachers “do not feel as if they have the skills” to serve children with those diagnoses.

Sparrow tells the world, “our staff is trained in trauma informed approaches to learning.” It’s not remotely clear what that means. But it sounds seductive to a stressed and desperate family, doesn’t it?

Like the vast majority of voucher schools, 100 percent ESE Sparrow has no accreditation whatsoever. I have no idea who or what accredits “trauma informed approaches;” but they haven’t accredited Sparrow. Even Step Up for Students says that. See image from Sparrow’s entry in the Step Up for Students marketplace below.

The accreditation issue is a warning sign, obviously. But then you see:

Do all teachers on staff meet education requirements? Yes.

This illustrates yet another grifty aspect of the Step Up for Students voucher schools and marketplace. It stands to reason that a shopping parent, believing in a functioning marketplace (like AirBnB or something) would think: yes, they really have been trained in the techniques appropriate to serve my child’s needs.

No, that’s not what that means. Not. at. all. I don’t know what it means; but it’s not that.

Indeed, my fantasy Grady Judd voucher task force could do everyone a great service by actually figuring out what “education requirements” means on the Step Up site and checking it against voucher school teaching staffs.

Literally every single school in the Step Up marketplace that I’ve seen declares that its teachers meet “education requirements.” My strong wager is that means there are no “education requirements” — or any other kind of requirements — for teachers.

But it would be fun too see the Grady Judd voucher task force confirm it in a Grady Judd press conference about the vicious scamming of his political and social allies.

A parent’s own words to one of the better voucher schools

CS has voluminous — most of it one-sided — correspondence with Sparrow. Despite working a full-time job, CS was a heavily involved Sparrow parent — volunteering, offering suggestions for helping Terry, patiently working with the school as Terry cycled through five teachers last year.

And I think it’s worth hearing her voice — two days after her son was unceremoniously booted by text — as she lays out the reality of the voucher world. Here’s the email she sent to Vance Linholm:

Since you haven’t been able to find the time to call me I have many questions I need answering. 

I sincerely hope you will find the time to read this entire letter...

Please tell me how my son was dismissed (via text message) without one meeting with his teacher, or any other staff member, before his dismissal, to discuss problems or issues? You and the teachers obviously found the time to discuss it. I should have been afforded the same luxury. 

Tell me why his agenda is so devoid of comment and full of whimsical stickers? Tell me why not even a note was ever sent home outlining any issues needing addressing? Tell me why I have asked multiple times for guidance on the tactics used in the classroom for social skills so that we could be consistent with them at home and never been given advice or tools? Tell me why I have many, many unanswered messages to his teacher? Tell me why I have asked many, many times for other forms of communication with the other teachers in the classroom and was met with silence? Tell me why when I asked for a meeting with his teacher they were scheduled, postponed and never rescheduled? Tell me why “I” had to ask for a meeting in the first place when the teacher never once, throughout the entire school year, asked for one with me herself? To be fair, I did talk on the phone once with his teacher after a particularly hard day for [Terry]. She only lectured me and never gave me the option to speak, respond or ask questions before rushing me off the phone after her rant. In addition to that, we were on another teacher‘s personal cell phone because that teacher, from another classroom, felt his teacher needed to talk to me more then his own teacher obviously did. 

Tell me why I haven’t seen any work, other then bible study worksheets, sent home in months? Tell me why his grades don’t reflect failure? Tell me why, though his grades do show decline, there was not a plan discussed and put in place to help him then?

Tell me why I personally witnessed a student punch another student while teachers watched and said, nor did, anything and I was the one who had to educate the student that hitting was never an option? Tell me why I witnessed a teacher literally (yes, I’m using that word correctly) drag an autistic student by her wrist and make her sit alone, without discussion or education, after she merely only said something inappropriate? Tell me why I was the one who later had to educate my son that that teacher responded inappropriately so he knew that to act physically out of frustration was never an option? Tell me why I overheard that same teacher talking to another teacher about ‘getting away from (trauma) children and leaving them behind if they ran fast enough’ in a joking manner while within earshot of many of the students? 

Tell me why your contractual agreement with your staff caused you to stop looking into further ways to help my son personally without a meeting or discussion? Tell me how your contractual agreement with my son seemed to be less important? 

Tell me how when I asked you for other resources, schools and guidance (because parents of bio children have none but their own love and will) you failed to reach out? Tell me why when I have tried to contact you to schedule a conference you apologize for the delayed response (on multiple occasions) because you were ‘in a meeting?’ I can only assume the meetings were with other parents. Tell me why I was never afforded the same meeting? 

Tell me why I personally feel more traumatized with our experiences at Sparrow? Tell me why I felt the need to take the blame and tell my son that WE decided to not send him back to Sparrow rather then let him believe yet another school, and people he had come to love, were discarding him yet again?

Tell me how, as educated as you claim to be, knowing that genetic ADHD trauma can metastasis into bipolar disorder, you still discard him and our little family so easily? Tell me why a punitive approach seems to be better then living up to the schools mission statement?

Tell me how Sparrow so easily failed my emotionally challenged son? 

Because, yes, in retrospect, it seems this was quite easy for everyone at Sparrow to just cut the ties...

I would still appreciate a phone call from you. I understand you have committed to a ‘no work after school’ policy with your family. However, in your class we took and paid for, as well as on other occasions, you said you’d make yourself available any time of day. 

I believe you owe my family and my sweet boy more then a texting send off. 

Peace always,

The only response from voucher advocates to any of this will be: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ well, that’s parental “choice.” Isn’t it great? Sorry sucker, you shouldn’t have believed what they advertised; and you should have left sooner. Also, we’re going to give them more money.

Remember, it’s both profitable and legal for voucher schools to do this to kids. Voucher King Ron DeSantis and Kelli Stargel want to do much more of it. So expect much much more of it while they continue to try to kill your real public schools however they can.