Choice scholarships revoked for Orlando private school

Travis Pillow

The Florida Department of Education on Friday suspended an Orlando private school with a history of regulatory violations from the state’s school choice scholarship programs. The department is also moving quickly to remove the school permanently from participation in the programs.

Agape Christian Academy has occasionally landed in the headlines for issues from financial woes to forged fire inspections.

Last year, after discovering fire code violations and improper fire inspection documents, DOE suspended the school from receiving money through Florida tax credit scholarships, McKay Scholarships and Gardiner Scholarships. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner programs.)

DOE allowed the school to continue receiving scholarships last fall only after Agape signed a settlement agreeing to fix the issues and abide by a list of specific new requirements. A modified agreement, signed in April after months of legal disputes, placed the school on “probationary status.”

That agreement outlined that, to remain eligible for the scholarship programs, Agape needed to return more than $178,000 to Step Up and the state — money the school received from scholarship programs while it was not qualified to participate. The agreement also required the school to accept professional development for its staff and to participate in the Measures of Academic Progress assessment program to get a more timely picture of the academic progress of its students.

Records show the school was dropped temporarily from the testing program in the spring because of delinquent payment to the testing company. The testing company further reported that an Agape administrator left a message in July indicating the school was dropping out of the testing program. Agape was supposed to submit its renewal application for fall testing by April 30. It had not done so prior to the DOE’s action on Friday.

Step Up and state officials have contacted parents who rely on the scholarships, informing them they have other options.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that 124 students were expected to enroll for the coming school year through the Tax Credit and McKay scholarship programs.

Orlando attorney Blair Jackson, who is representing Agape, said Tuesday that the school plans to start classes as planned for the year.

“We are working with the Department of Education to resolve any outstanding issues and are hopeful this can be done amicably and with as little disruption to the operation of the school as possible,” Jackson said.

Given the regulatory history, such a resolution seems unlikely. Through the previous settlement agreement, the school waived its right to appeal to the Division of Administrative Hearings, which means its only appeal option is to the courts.

Although the school can open for business on Monday, it is unclear how many students would be able to attend without the state scholarships. Eighty-four of the students would have received tax credit scholarships based on financial need.

Agape would be the sixth such school state officials have barred from scholarship programs over the past year. A seventh school is appealing its revocation. Since the 2012-13 school year, the department has kicked a total of 17 schools off the programs. It’s also blocked another 18 prospective schools from participating.

Typically, the state removes schools for violating health and safety requirements.

In Agape’s case, the market had also begun to take a toll. It had 224 students enrolled using tax credit scholarships alone during the 2010-11 school year. But that number steadily declined. Last school year, that number fell to 84.

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