Orlando Sentinel // Editorial
Florida’s school scholarship programs allocate or redirect nearly $1 billion in public funds annually to almost 2,000 private schools to educate 140,000 students. A public investment of that magnitude, with life-changing consequences for that many students and their families, demands a responsible and credible level of public scrutiny and accountability.
But as three Orlando Sentinel reporters detailed in a series, “Schools Without Rules,” published online this week, Florida applies only limited oversight to those private schools paid through the programs to educate students from lower-income families, or with special needs.
While many of the schools enrolling students with scholarships offer high-quality instruction and facilities to students — a point made in the series, the product of months of investigative reporting — some cheat students, their families and taxpayers of the educational standards and safe learning environment they have a right to expect.
A deliberate hands-off approach
The examples cited in the series are disturbing. Schools employing teachers — a principal in one case — without college degrees. Schools hiring staff with criminal records. Schools found falsifying health and fire-safety records, yet maintaining their eligibility for state scholarships. Schools operating in shoddy facilities. Schools touting expertise for students with special needs without verification.
The state’s hands-off approach to scholarship schools is deliberate. State law actually limits to 10 the number of these schools that state regulators can visit, unless problems have been reported. Last year the state visited 22 schools, only a little more than 1 percent of the total receiving scholarships. The year before, it visited 27, and found that just four met all the rules for scholarship schools.
The number of private schools statewide has risen more than 20 percent in the past decade. Many accept scholarships and derive the bulk of their funding that way.
The philosophy behind the state’s lax approach to regulating scholarship schools is that pressure from the free market, applied through parents themselves, will reward good actors with more students and punish bad ones with fewer. This assumes a commitment of time and attention that might not be realistic for many busy parents, especially single parents. A former University of Florida researcher told the Sentinel that parents don’t always get enough information to avoid “terrible schools.”
Florida’s loosely regulated scholarship programs for private schools have expanded even as state leaders have imposed more requirements and demanded more accountability from public schools. Ironically, one of the hallmarks of that approach to public schools — extensive high-stakes testing — has sent many students who qualify for scholarships fleeing to private schools, which have choices in the exams they administer to students. One private administrator called these students “testing refugees.”
Cold comfort for students and their families
Step up for Students, the nonprofit agency paid to administer most of the scholarships, quickly challenged the series on its blog and urged supporters of the programs to write letters defending them. The agency accused the Sentinel of hyping isolated problems to paint a distorted picture of the program.
That’s not how we see it. While the examples of abuses in the series admittedly involve a small percentage of the private schools statewide receiving scholarships, three reporters couldn’t be expected to do a top-to-bottom review of 2,000 schools. Where they looked, they uncovered problems. Who knows how many more problems would have been exposed with a deeper dive? And why won’t the state take ownership of that responsibility?
Further, the argument that only a small percentage of private schools receiving scholarships have serious problems is cold comfort for families who have chosen to send their children to those schools, and subjected them to a year or more of substandard education — or worse, risks to their health and safety — because the state couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. So your child’s unacceptable experience at school is not typical. Feel better now?
Supporters of the scholarship programs claim students outperform their counterparts in public schools. If so, they should welcome more scrutiny from state regulators to buttress that claim, and ferret out more private schools that don’t make the grade.