Fla. Newspaper Exposes Host Of Problems In State’s Voucher Scheme

Last week the Orlando Sentinel ran a devastating series of articles about Florida’s voucher plan.

The articles, by staff writers Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab and Annie Martin, focus primarily on the fact that private schools in the state are accepting $1 billion a year in taxpayer funds with virtually no oversight. The result has been what you’d expect: a raft of fly-by-night schools, some of which use questionable curriculum, hire unqualified staff and place children in dangerous facilities.

Private schools in Florida's voucher plan get lots of taxpayer money but no meaningful oversight.

During its investigation, the Sentinel visited more than 30 private schools in five Florida counties. The newspaper reported that it also reviewed public records, interviewed parents and talked with education policy experts.

Several disturbing facts emerged, among them:

* Private schools that take part in the voucher scheme aren’t required to hire staff who have college degrees or any kind of educational certification. One school is run by a 24-year-old who attends a community college. It received half a million dollars in voucher aid last year.

* Voucher schools aren’t required to follow the state’s educational standards. They pretty much teach what they want. Several fundamentalist Christian academies use a curriculum produced by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). Under the ACE program, students sit at desks and fill out worksheets most of the day.

* The teaching of creationism is rampant in Christian academies subsidized by vouchers.

* Since 2012, at least 19 private schools have submitted documents to the state containing misleading or outright falsified information about fire or health inspections. Some even submitted forged documents.

* Onsite visits from state officials are exceedingly rare. Nearly 2,000 private schools are taking part in the voucher program. In 2016, state education officials inspected 22 of them.

* State law requires private schools taking part in the program to run criminal background checks on employees, but they aren’t required to share the results with state officials. As a result, some private schools have hired people with criminal records anyway.

* Many parents have complained about the educational quality of some of these schools, but the Sentinel found that state education officials don’t take the complaints seriously. Their standard response is to say that private schools, even those receiving public support through vouchers, have the right to determine their own curriculum.

* The program is largely a vehicle to prop up sectarian private education. Seventy-eight percent of the students taking part in it are attending religious schools.

Most vouchers in Florida are funded through a complicated system of corporate tax credits. Under the scheme, companies donate money to an entity that gives vouchers, euphemistically called “scholarships,” to students. The firms receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their state tax bills. It’s money that would otherwise go into the state’s budget.

The Florida Education Association, Americans United and other groups challenged the voucher boondoggle in court. The case, McKay v. Scott, went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected it on the grounds of “standing” – that is, the right to sue. Remarkably, even though Florida taxpayers were part of the lawsuit, the state high court ruled that they were not injured by the voucher plan and had no right to challenge it in court.

After the Sentinel’s series ran, Scott Maxwell, a columnist for the paper, pointed out that state officials have embraced lax oversight of voucher schools for ideological reasons.

“State officials aren’t looking for problems for a simple reason: They don’t want to find them,” Maxwell wrote. “That way, they can keep dumping on public schools – bogging them down with tests, regulations and calling them ‘failure factories’ while turning intentionally blind eyes to problems in the voucher schools.

“And yes, it’s all public money,” Maxwell continued. “They can call the vouchers ‘scholarships’ or ‘dandelions’ for all I care. Or argue that many ‘scholarships’ are paid with corporate-tax contributions redirected to schools. But much of it is direct tax dollars, and it’s all public.”

Unfortunately, the situation in Florida has surfaced in other states with voucher plans (and in Washington, D.C., as well, which has a federally funded program). Lax oversight leads to shoddy schools, and kids end up paying the price.

The Sentinel concluded its series by calling for more oversight of the voucher program. That’s one option, but a better one would be to shut it down entirely.