Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education, has bragged about Florida’s tuition tax credit voucher program as the model for the kind of national program she’d like to see. An in-depth, three-part investigation by reporters for the Orlando Sentinel paints a very different picture of this program:
“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. The limited oversight of Florida’s scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money…. Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.”
Florida’s tuition tax credit voucher program and two separate voucher programs for students with special needs serve 140,000 students in 2000 poorly regulated private schools. The Orlando Sentinel describes:
- Florida’s failure to require that private school teachers and principals have a bachelor’s degree or be certified—including, for example, a school serving special education students that assigned a 21-year-old without a bachelor’s degree to work with autistic students;
- Florida’s failure to establish academic standards for the schools that qualify to receive state vouchers;
- Florida’s failure to follow up when school operators, even those facing criminal convictions whose schools are shut down by the state, open new schools under their wife’s or a friend’s name.
Reporters explain: “Last year the state visited 22 of nearly 2,000 schools. The year before it visited 27—and found only four compliant with all scholarship regulations. Scholarship laws also require private schools to hire only employees who pass criminal background checks, but they do not require the state to routinely check those records. In recent years, while investigating other problems, the education department caught at least eight schools with staff members who had criminal records.”
More than 75 percent of the vouchers pay for tuition at religious schools—mostly Christian but also Jewish and Muslim. We learn of “a handful of popular curricula that, as one administrator explained, teach ‘traditional’ math and reading but Bible-based history and science, including creationism.” And, “Just as they are free from public school hiring rules, private schools that take state scholarships are exempt from giving the Florida Standards Assessments, the state’s standardized tests. But they must give some scholarship students another exam of their choosing….” The state does not, however, regularly publish the scores of the students in the voucher schools.
The new Orlando Sentinel expose on Florida’s private voucher schools provides a rich context for Amy Waldman’s profile last month for ProPublica of two states, Florida and Indiana, where charter schools—when they are shut down for low test scores or mismanagement—are being converted to private schools with tuition paid by state vouchers. In both states charter schools are more carefully regulated than private voucher schools.
Waldman describes, for example, Orange Park Performing Arts Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, a school with four principals in three years where children were making virtually no academic progress: “The district terminated the academy’s charter contract. Surprisingly, Orange Park didn’t shut down—and even found a way to stay on the public dime. It reopened last month as a private school charging $5,000 a year, below the $5,886 maximum that low-income students receive to attend the school of their choice under a state voucher program. Academy officials expect all of its students to pay tuition with the publicly backed coupons.”
Waldman explains: “Two key factors underlie these conversions. The number of voucher and voucher-like programs across the country has more than tripled over the past decade from 16 to 53. And charter schools, which became popular as a way to spur educational innovation with reduced regulation, have increasingly faced more stringent oversight… As private schools, the ex-charters are less accountable… to the… public. It can be nearly impossible to find out how well some of them are performing… While most states have provisions for closing low-quality charter schools, few, if any, have the power to shut down low performing voucher schools.”
When Betsy DeVos spoke to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in July, she outlined her own—libertarian—philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” Consider the realities reported by the Orlando Sentinel and in Amy Waldman’s report for ProPublica as the realization of Betsy DeVos’s dream.
By contrast, public education is the civic institution in which, by law and through the democratic process, society can best protect the rights and serve the educational needs of all of our children.