Saturday, December 9

Parents, private school owners sound off over Florida’s school voucher program after not getting money

Some schools for students with special needs started alerting us this week that they hadn’t received a dime of the state money their students were approved for. Now, they’re facing financial ruin and parents are worried the schools will close.

Maranda Cobble is desperate and afraid.

“As a parent, I’m so scared that my son is going to lose this,” Cobble told us recently. “I don’t have anywhere else to turn.”

Her 16-year-old son, Mason, has special needs and was kicked out of a public school.

But for the past year, Miranda said Mason has been thriving at Voyager Academy, a small private school in Brevard County.

“He’s done a whole 180. He’s able to go to school,” she said. “He’s able to function socially. He cries when he can’t go to school.”

But the state funding Mason was approved for through Florida’s school choice empowerment scholarship program, also known as the states school voucher program, has yet to be deposited into her sons account.

As a result, her son’s school hasn’t been paid.

“We are down to our last $1.43 in our bank account,” Voyager Academy owner Carrie Owens said.

While the first installments should have been deposited at the beginning of the month, Owens said that none of her students’ state voucher funds has kicked in.

The financial ripple effect on her and her small school has already been crippling.

“We rely on that money to pay rent, so our rent is late now,” she said. “I’m trying to keep it together and not get teared up, but I can’t pay my employees. Friday will be our second payroll that I can’t pay them.”

Owens and her school aren’t alone.

We’ve learned that Florida’s school voucher “no show” problem impacts private schools and parents statewide.

“A total complete mess” is how Maria Preston described the situation. She owns the Diverse Abilities school for kids with special needs in Fort Lauderdale and recently had to stop offering therapies to her 40 students.

“I’ve pulled personally almost $70,000 out of my own pocket just to pay up until now hoping that OK, the money’s coming, the money’s coming,” Preston said. “But as of yesterday, when I called Step Up, they told us, nope, 10 more days, and you may not even get it until November.”

During a Zoom meeting Wednesday evening, nearly 100 owners of private schools for students with disabilities shared the same stories and lack of answers theyve received from Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE) or Step Up for Students. Step Up is the contractor hired to distribute most of the states school voucher money.

More than 400,000 Florida students have been awarded scholarships through the $4 billion program, which assists any K-12 student to attend a private school.

Florida’s newly expanded school voucher program is now the largest nationwide.

“We need to know where the money is and when are we going to get it,” Mary Jo Walsh, owner of Mountaineer’s School of Autism in West Palm Beach, said during a Zoom meeting she organized earlier this week.

Walsh also created a new private school coalition after getting inundated with calls and emails when she spoke out about the issues recently.

A spokesperson for Step Up refused to answer our questions, directing us to the state instead.

Florida’s education department also didn’t offer much explanation.

“With this tremendous growth, it remains important that the Department of Education, as well as Step Up for Students, conducts its due diligence and exercise the proper controls to ensure that taxpayer funds are expended both expeditiously and appropriately,” FDOE spokesperson Cailey Myers stated in an email.

“If the school has to close because they don’t get their funding, my son has nowhere else to go,” Cobble said.

On Friday afternoon, she finally received an email from the FDOE indicating that the department was working to “streamline” the process so schools get funding sooner.

“It’s not just affecting my babies, it’s affecting all the kids here in Florida, and that’s not fair, that’s not fair at all,” Owens said.

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