Florida school owner sentenced and ordered to repay stolen scholarship money

Care.com, a website that provides information for families about childcare programs, states that Kids Palace in Hialeah, Florida, “works with parents in giving the best care that is comfortable and enjoyable for students.”

The former owner of a South Florida daycare recently was sentenced to prison for committing fraud against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Lissette Orta, the owner of Kids Palace Daycare in Hialeah, was sentenced Sept. 9 to 21 months behind bars after being found guilty of committing more than $100,000 worth of fraud during the 2016-17 school year. Orta was arrested in 2019 after an investigation by the Florida Department of Education and Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed she had submitted applications on behalf of parents, claiming their children were attending the school full-time.

Orta was charged with stealing $130,249 in scholarship money intended for low-income students. State records show Kids Palace Day Care was voluntarily dissolved in October 2017.

According to the FLDOE annual accountability report, fraud against the scholarship program is exceedingly rare. Last year, more than 2,000 private schools participated in scholarship programs with only three cases of fraudulent activity detected in 2021.

Over the last decade, FLDOE revoked 43 schools from being able to accept scholarship funds due to fraudulent activities. Another 21 schools entered into settlement agreements with the state.

State rules require all new schools accepting scholarship programs to receive a site visit from FLDOE. Schools must have a surety bond and complete a financial report with a certified CPA if the school receives more than $250,000 a year in scholarships.

Financial reporting requirements were revised and strengthened in September 2018 and March 2020, making it easier for FLDOE to catch fraud and suspend or revoke schools.

Eleventh Circuit Court Judge Teresa Mary Pooler imposed a civil lien of $130,249 on Orta earlier this month. Orta is to repay Step Up For Students, which had raised the funds from private corporate contributions.

Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog) is one of two scholarship funding organizations in Florida. The nonprofit raised private corporate donations as part of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income and working-class students. Corporations receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contribution to the scholarship program.

So far, Step Up For Students has funded 85,539 students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for the 2022-23 school year. The average student lives in a household earning less than $41,000 a year. More than half of the students come from a single-parent household, and 67% are Black or Hispanic.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at pgibbons@stepupforstudents.org. Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


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