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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vouchers: there should be parity and accountability for all

By Julie Delegul

Gov.-elect Rick Scott announced that he wants to offer every student in Florida a private school voucher.

Currently, the state offers vouchers to low-income students through a tax diversion called the Tax Credit Scholarship. Florida also offers vouchers straight from the state treasury to students with disabilities, the McKay voucher.

Scott’s new policy push calls for a review of what’s right and wrong with the two voucher programs.

Never mind that the Florida Supreme Court threw out a less ambitious voucher program than Scott’s when Jeb Bush was governor. (The court said then that public education dollars could only be spent on “uniform” public schools.)

Something much more important than the law is at stake: educational quality for students.

Empirical studies belie the notion that private schools educate our children better than public schools do. When socio-economic status and race are accounted for, studies from the U.S. Department of Education say that private schools don’t get better results.

Further, Florida’s own studies showed that private voucher school students performed no better than their closest-matched public school peers on standardized test gains during the two years the state took data on the issue.

Arguably, we need more studies. But we can’t compare voucher schools to public schools because the Legislature slashed the norm-referenced Stanford 10 for Florida’s public schools.

Perhaps lawmakers don’t want researchers, voters, taxpayers and parents to make those comparisons. After all, if private schools were actually better, wouldn’t they want to demonstrate it on a common playing field?

Parity in accountability should also extend to McKay vouchers. Providing progress for individual students with disabilities, based on commonly accepted scientific standards as embodied in individual education plans, is the law of the land.

For the sake of students, their families, and taxpayers, private schools receiving state money must not be deemed exempt from laws which protect disabled students.

Until we devise systems by which private schools are held accountable in exact parity to public schools — using apples-to-apples testing instruments — we ought not be directing any more taxpayer money their way.

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