Our View: Fix issues before adding to scholarship programs.
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.