Our View: Fix is­sues be­fore adding to schol­ar­ship pro­grams.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE -

Florida al­lo­cates or redi­rects al­most $1 bil­lion a year in pub­lic funds to nearly 2,000 pri­vate schools to ed­u­cate 140,000 of the state’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble stu­dents, but ap­plies min­i­mal over­sight to en­sure that money is well spent. In a state that im­poses strict ac­count­abil­ity re­quire­ments on pub­lic schools, the con­trast is both strik­ing and in­de­fen­si­ble.

Last month a Sentinel in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “Schools With­out Rules,” re­ported that pri­vate schol­ar­ship schools, un­like pub­lic schools, are free to hire teach­ers and prin­ci­pals with­out col­lege de­grees and teach any cur­ricu­lum they choose. Their stu­dents aren’t re­quired to take the same stan­dard­ized tests as pub­lic school stu­dents. And some pri­vate schools vi­o­lated even the lim­ited rules in state schol­ar­ship pro­grams by hir­ing staff with crim­i­nal records or fal­si­fy­ing health and safety re­ports.

Af­ter first dis­miss­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, last week the of­fice of House Speaker Richard Cor­co­ran ap­peared to open the door to re­form. “The goal of the House has al­ways been a world class ed­u­ca­tion for every child,” a spokesman for the speaker told the Sentinel. “In the com­ing weeks the House will look at many is­sues, in­clud­ing some raised by the Sentinel, to en­sure the goals of these pro­grams are be­ing met and if not, to of­fer im­prove­ments.”

But last week also left good rea­son to ques­tion whether the speaker and other lead­ers in the Leg­is­la­ture are se­ri­ous about so­lu­tions, or more in­clined to dou­ble down on cur­rent pol­icy. Repub­li­cans on a House com­mit­tee ap­proved a bill over op­po­si­tion from the panel’s Democrats that would cre­ate yet an­other pro­gram of­fer­ing schol­ar­ships to pri­vate schools — this one for vic­tims of bul­ly­ing in pub­lic schools. If ap­proved, it would steer even more pub­lic money to pri­vate schools with few strings at­tached.

Op­po­nents, in­clud­ing Democrats at last week’s hear­ing, have raised some ob­vi­ous ques­tions about the new pro­gram: Why evac­u­ate bul­ly­ing vic­tims from pub­lic schools and leave the per­pe­tra­tors be­hind to drive away more stu­dents? How, if at all, would bul­ly­ing accusations be ver­i­fied? Why not sim­ply do more to stop bul­ly­ing in pub­lic schools? Are all pri­vate schools less vul­ner­a­ble to bul­ly­ing than pub­lic schools?

Leg­is­la­tors’ time would be much bet­ter spent re­form­ing the cur­rent schol­ar­ship pro­grams rather than adding to them. There are plenty of ex­am­ples for leg­is­la­tors to con­sider from other states led by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tures or gov­er­nors or both.

In Wis­con­sin, pri­vate schools tak­ing schol­ar­ship stu­dents un­dergo an­nual au­dits and their teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors must have col­lege de­grees and meet other min­i­mum stan­dards.

In Illi­nois, stu­dents with state schol­ar­ships to pri­vate schools take the same stan­dard­ized tests as pub­lic school stu­dents, so the per­for­mance of the two groups can be com­pared.

In pro­grams in In­di­ana and Louisiana, pri­vate schools that ac­cept schol­ar­ship stu­dents are graded, and in­el­i­gi­ble to take more if they fail to mea­sure up.

In Arkansas, pri­vate schol­ar­ship schools must be ac­cred­ited, and their teach­ers must meet min­i­mum de­gree or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards.

The Sentinel re­porters be­hind “Schools With­out Rules” con­tacted 10 key leg­is­la­tors who have ad­vo­cated strict ac­count­abil­ity for pub­lic schools to ask each one why the same prin­ci­ple shouldn’t also ap­ply to the pri­vate schools where 140,000 stu­dents are be­ing ed­u­cated us­ing state schol­ar­ships. Only Cor­co­ran’s of­fice replied, with the state­ment above.

Leg­is­la­tors who aren’t even will­ing to de­fend the state’s schol­ar­ship pro­grams need to be fix­ing them be­fore they even think about ex­pand­ing them.

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