The Cost of Choice: Family-run school sanctioned by state, receives millions in scholarship dollars

Public money flowed despite low student scores, allegations of cheating and nepotism concerns.
Updated: May. 9, 2019 at 11:15 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Louisiana’s scholarship program opened the doors to school choice in the state, but also allowed some schools to start collecting millions in state dollars by allowing scholarship students.

One of those schools, McMillian’s First Steps Academy in New Orleans, has brought in millions from the state in recent years through voucher subsidies, despite a checkered past filled with low performance, allegations of cheating on state exams and evidence of nepotism uncovered by an investigation by WVUE-TV, | The Times-Picayune and WWNO in partnership with Reveal | The Center for Investigative Reporting.

According to data from the Louisiana Department of Education, the school received $1.3 Million in state money to educate kids as part of the scholarship program. Records show that every child enrolled at McMillian is there on a voucher from the state, sending state money to the private school.

See the data from the Louisiana Department of Education on McMillian’s First Steps Academy

The organizational chart of McMillian’s Academy reads more like a family tree. The school is run by Linda McMillian. According to the school’s website, Linda’s husband, Harold, is the CEO and her brother is the academy’s principal. The McMillian’s two son’s also hold positions in the academy – Rashad is the assistant principal and Christopher is an administrator. Linda’s daughter, Fanchon, is the school’s band director.

A total of at least six members of one family employed at the same school and funded by taxpayer money. Ethics laws in the State of Louisiana prohibit similar arrangements in public schools.

“Nepotism in the public sector is frowned upon,” Andre Perry, an education activist and fellow with the Brookings Institution, said. “You have to prove each family member qualified first. It happens at times, but it’s so rare for that many folks to be connected. [It] puts up red flags on the quality and intentions of the school.”

The school is a byproduct of the voucher system. Records from the Louisiana Department of Education show the preschool expanded in the 2013 school year and began accepting elementary school students. That first year, every student enrolled received a voucher. Since that time, the amount of state money it receives has skyrocketed.

Last year, the school enrolled 156 scholarship students. For each student, the school charged the state nearly $9,000 per year, which is the maximum allowed under the Louisiana Scholarship Program. According to figures from the state, the school does not have a single school-aged student paying tuition.

“[They are] setting [tuition] to maximize profit,” Perry said.

As McMillian started receiving more money from the State of Louisiana to educate voucher students, records from the Internal Revenue Service show Linda McMillian received a raise. In 2017, her salary increased $53,000 to $204,000 per year.

Several documents uncovered in The Cost of Choice joint investigation found questions of the “integrity” of school administrators and a questionable “pattern of behavior.”

Records showed the Louisiana Department of Education received an anonymous report in the Spring of 2017 alleging cheating on tests at McMillian’s First Steps Academy.

During the investigation, the department and the state inspector general interviewed “multiple groups of McMillian students. Before investigators asked a question about the test, they said twenty-one students voluntarily told investigators they had not cheated. The investigators concluded in a report “these students had likely been prepared by McMillian’s staff to answer that way.”

The next school year, 2018, investigators returned and found several more irregularities. The possible violations included: a test administrator allowing a student to work on a test after time was called, a test administrator’s eyes remaining closed for ten minutes during testing and the school’s students exhibited a rate of changing answers from wrong to right above the state average.

“When you have that many students changing answers, it means they are protecting people's jobs instead of trying to use the scores to improve the school,” Perry said.

Investigators also found sixty-nine percent of the school’s students received read-aloud accommodations, a significantly higher rate than the state average of ten percent. When the state asked McMillian to support these accommodations, the school did not respond. Investigators also discovered the school tested all sixth and seventh grade students outside the required one-week testing window.

“This tells me the state is cognizant of the problems at this school and they should shut it down immediately,” Perry said.

We showed the findings to former-State Senator Ann Duplessis, she sponsored the legislation to expand the voucher system statewide and now serves as president of the pro-voucher group, Louisiana Federation for Children.

“First off – I’m very disappointed,” Duplessis said. “If the facts are what they are – and that decision is to close the school, then it should be closed.”

When asked if the things the investigators found is serving the students, Duplessis repeated her disappointment in the school.

“If at the end of the day it comes back that this is all accurate then they should not be serving our kids,” Duplessis said.

But the former state senator said the investigators findings show oversight by the state Department of Education.

“It is a testament to accountability measures that we have in place with this program that the department – we are not waiting five or ten years to react – it’s swift,” she said.

Students at McMillian’s First Steps Academy took 180 tests last year. As a result of the investigator’s findings, the state voided sixty-one of the tests.

Initially, the state gave McMillian a ‘C’ grade for the last school year. However, when we started asking the Louisiana Department of Education about the score, a spokesperson said, “the score was incorrectly listed on our website.”

The state then changed McMillian’s score to a ‘D’ following our inquiry.

The state sanctioned the school the following year, meaning McMillian’s cannot accept new voucher students.

One parent picking up a child from McMillian’s Academy said they had not heard about the irregularities. We showed the investigator’s findings to the parent who was surprised by what she read.

“I didn’t hear anything of this,” she told FOX 8’s Lee Zurik. “If this holds to be true -- and of course this is by the Louisiana Department of Education – it should have been discussed at the school meeting.”

The parent we spoke to also said they were unaware of the state telling McMillian’s Academy they will not be allowed to accept new voucher students in the 2019-2020 school year.

Linda McMillian told FOX 8 News she would interview with the station, but later sent an e-mail...
Linda McMillian told FOX 8 News she would interview with the station, but later sent an e-mail cancelling the interview.(Jon Turnipseed, WVUE-TV)

We tried to schedule an interview with Linda McMillian, the school’s executive director. She initially agreed, then in an e-mail to FOX 8’s Lee Zurik, declined our request. When we tried asking parents about the school’s violations, Ms. McMillian came out of the school.

“You can do the interview with me anytime next week,” McMillian told Zurik. Both agreed on a Monday interview, but McMillian later sent an e-mail late Saturday night saying she would not be doing an interview.

Regarding the story and the allegations against her school, Linda McMillian did say in the e-mail response:

“We have students we received and enrolled in (5th and 6th) grade with a skill level of a first and second grader. Who drop [sic] the ball and who left those students behind?”

“In addition, these students are struggling and can’t keep up with our curriculum and therefore, grades are poor along with poor performance and little to non [sic] support from the parent(s).”

This story is part of a series entitled, The Cost of Choice, a joint investigation by WVUE-TV, | The Times Picayune, WWNO and in partnership with Reveal - The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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