December 2017 Church & State - December 2017

Investigation Reveals Fla. School Voucher Plan Rife With Problems

  AU admin

The Orlando Sentinel in October published a series of articles exposing the lack of accountability of Florida’s private school voucher programs and the resulting poor quality of schools that taxpayer dollars are funding.

“Private schools in Florida will collect nearly $1 billion in state-backed scholarships this year through a system so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records,” wrote Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab and Annie Martin to introduce the three-part series.

The Sentinel’s reporters visited more than 30 private schools in five Florida counties and they reviewed public records, interviewed parents and talked with education policy experts.

Several disturbing facts emerged, including:

  • Private schools that take part in the voucher schemes 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.  
  • Seventy-eight percent of the students in Florida’s voucher programs are attending religious schools. The teaching of creationism is common in Christian academies subsidized by vouchers.  
  • Voucher schools aren’t required to follow the state’s educational standards. Several fundamentalist Christian academies use a curriculum produced by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), which has students spend most of the day filling out worksheets with little interaction with teachers or each other.  
  • On-site 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 just 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 tax dollars, have the right to determine their own curriculum.

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 dubbed “scholarships,” to students. The firms receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their state tax bills – money that would otherwise go into the state’s budget and could be funding the public schools that the vast majority of students attend.

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

“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.”

Florida’s voucher schemes are expected to serve as an example for the federally funded voucher program President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have hyped but not yet formally proposed. The two visited a voucher-funded Cath­olic school in Florida shortly after taking office, and Trump touted a recipient of a Florida voucher during his first address to the joint Con­gress in February.

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