Florida failing to hold private schools accountable, even with state money

November 29, 2012 

Several confounding questions surround yet another alarming situation at a private school owned by a man whose financial track record can only be described as wanting at best. The Prep Academy is now the fourth school owned by Hendrik Lamprecht to fall into deep trouble, though its exact status remains hazy.

Prep's former principal, Theresa Kern, exposed the dire situation in a detailed article by Herald education reporter Katy Bergen last week. Incredibly, Kern often had to produce copies of textbook pages because classrooms lacked books.

Yet parents paid a $250 book fee, never saw textbooks in classroom, and their children never came home with any.

Kern and other teachers did not receive paychecks for months -- just like employees at other Lamprecht schools.

In the latest lawsuit against Lamprecht, the property owner of the building that housed The Prep Academy is seeking more than $57,000 in back rent and damages. Lamprecht has not paid rent since March, the civil action states, and the building owner wants the school evicted.

This case follows several other lawsuits against Lamprecht. A dozen former teachers claim he owes them more than $200,000 in unpaid salaries.

In the past two years, Lamprecht operated three other private schools in Manatee County, and all closed over foreclosure, insufficient funds or other misfortunes. The Bradenton Prep, The Prep Learning Academy and New Path Academy all disappeared.

Now The Prep Academy is distressed. The school opened in July 2011 with state approval to receive taxpayer money in the form of McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities. That's easy money since state monitoring is almost nonexistent and private schools enjoy most control by simply filing compliance forms.

The Prep Academy accepted the first quarterly payments of at least one student's $14,000 scholarship and another's $11,000 scholarship. Fewer than 10 of the school's 50 students receive McKay money. Statewide, the program paid out an average of about $6,850 per scholarship this school year.

This leads to those disconcerting questions:

n Why does the state of Florida impose exacting regulations on public schools but allows private ones to rake in McKay Scholarships and operate fairly free of oversight or accountability?

n Why would parents place their children in a school without thoroughly checking the owner's background and educational expertise?

n Why would educators take employment at a place where the owner has a history of not cutting paychecks and quickly closing schools?

Gov. Rick Scott, state education leaders and top legislators all promote charter and private schools as a panacea for parental choice, contending that competition with public schools will raise learning standards and student achievement. While that's a laudable goal, the reality is far different in many cases -- with numerous charter schools failing.

Private schools are another matter, being free of the state rules that govern charter and public schools. Florida law doesn't require private schools to certify that teachers are qualified to instruct students with special needs before receiving McKay funds, nor do statutes mandate oversight on how a school spends McKay money. Once parents endorse a scholarship check over to a school, they have little influence.

Amazingly, the state does not ask private schools about curriculum. On its website until early October, The Prep Academy claimed to hold accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and from an organization that ceased to exist after merging with another accreditation group in 2008.

Once informed of the misrepresentation, the school deleted the erroneous reference.

Lamprecht's private academies rank as the poster children for mismanagement.

The state of Florida cannot claim to be working toward improving an education system with teacher merit pay and new standardized tests and then allow private schools to hold a free pass on accountability.

The Legislature and governor should address this failure and set standards for any school that receives taxpayer money.

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