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Saturday, December 24, 2011

In Florida private schools say, public money yes please, accountability no way

from the Orlando Sentinel

By Dave Weber, Orlando Sentinel

Florida's tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students is "a travesty" and "part of the agenda" to weaken public schools, Seminole County education leaders say.

Their main complaint: There's little known about what the nearly 38,000 students in the program are learning in exchange for the $175 million spent this year to send them to private — most often religious — schools.

Such public criticism of the scholarship program, which is very popular among conservative Republicans running the state, is rare.

But education leaders in Seminole, with its high-performing schools, have been more vocal lately as they struggle to find ways to cut more than $22 million from next year's budget. Already, the district has closed one school and is expected to shutter perhaps three more, in addition to other cutbacks.

They blame the tax-credit scholarship program for siphoning off taxpayer dollars just when school districts across Florida most need the money.

Under the program, low-income parents dissatisfied with public schools can send their children to private school at taxpayers' expense. Taxes that are otherwise due to the state instead go to the scholarship fund, which is projected to hit $250 million next year.

Seminole school-district officials also see a double standard that other school leaders across Florida object too as well.

The state, they contend, has created a huge gap in its education-accountability system by largely exempting the scholarship students and the schools they attend from the academic standards that public schools face.

"They are taking the lowest-performing students and putting them in a situation where you don't evaluate how they are doing," said Marjorie Murray, director of special projects for Seminole County public schools. "This is a travesty."

Seminole schools Superintendent Bill Vogel takes the criticism a step further by calling the tax-credit program "part of the agenda" to weaken the public-school system, and School Board members agree.

"There is no accountability to taxpayers, and tax dollars are going to private schools," School Board Chairman Tina Calderone said.

But supporters of the tax-credit scholarships say such criticism is off base. They defend the program as an escape hatch for low-income students often trapped in low-performing public schools. Data indicate that students using the scholarships tend to have done poorly in their previous schools, although the state's most recent study indicates they are not necessarily coming from low-performing schools.

Seminole County alone has about 800 scholarship students, enough to fill one of the elementary schools that the district plans to close because of declining enrollment and accompanying loss of state funding. Orange has more than 4,000. In the five-county Central Florida region, there are about 8,100 tax-credit scholarship students attending about 200 private schools, with hundreds of others here and across Florida on a waiting list.

School-district officials in Volusia and Orange counties also are concerned that private schools are getting public funds without providing proof that the money is well spent.

Christine Moore, a member of the Orange County School Board, said scholarship students should be required to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test so parents and the public can measure their academic achievement against the tax dollars invested. School Board Chairman Bill Sublette agrees.

"Let's level the playing ground by making sure they take the same tests and are evaluated in the same ways as the public schools," Sublette said.

John East, a strong supporter of tax-credit scholarships, said claims of no accountability for the program are inaccurate, pointing to state requirements that students take a standardized test each year to show whether they are making progress.

"We all want these students to succeed, whether they are in regular schools or in our program," said East, spokesman for Step Up For Children, the Tampa-area nonprofit that administers the scholarship program.

Latest-available data, for the 2009-10 school year, indicate that scholarship students as a whole show "small improvements in reading and math," according to Northwestern University professor David Figlio, who did the study for the state. But the scant evaluation comes nowhere near the intense scrutiny that public schools and their students face through the FCAT, school grades and other measures.

Marketed by the state as a public service to help unfortunate children, the scholarship program has gathered a list of big-name participants, including BJ's Wholesale Club; The Hartford and Geico insurance companies; Waste Management; United Healthcare; and a slew of liquor companies and distributors, including ABC Fine Wine and Spirits.

Originally, only corporate-income taxes were eligible to be diverted to the scholarship fund, but the Legislature later added severance taxes on oil and gas production, some sales-tax liabilities and alcoholic-beverage taxes.

In addition to lack of accountability, Seminole school officials criticize the scholarship program as a cheap way to educate students. The scholarships pay private schools $4,011 per student, only two-thirds of what the state spends in a regular public school.

But proponents say the scholarships are a financial bargain for the state. And they say accountability is increasingly being added to the 10-year-old program.

They point to stricter accountability standards meant to show how scholarship students perform in individual schools. But only a fraction of students and schools will work into the new evaluation due out next summer because a school must test at least 30 tax-scholarship students to be included. Only nine of the 29 private schools taking tax-scholarship students in Seminole might meet that standard.

The Double R Private School in rural Chuluota, which has only 15 scholarship students among the 85 in its kindergarten through eighth grades, would not be evaluated. But headmaster Kevin Dunne said he favors tight standards for private schools getting the scholarship money.

"I have no problem with scrutiny or accountability. I am a taxpayer, too," Dunne said.

National education experts who otherwise support school-choice initiatives seem to side with Seminole's criticism of accountability for Florida's tax-credit scholarship program.

"My bottom line is there should be public accountability when there is public money involved," said Joseph Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College in New York who has written extensively about school choice.

Viteritti said that, although Florida is evaluating tax-credit scholarship students through required testing, there is no real accountability if there are no consequences for students or schools that do not meet standards. Florida public schools have a slew of penalties, ranging from requiring low-performing students to take remedial classes to reorganizing schools that earn F's in state grading.

Though proponents of tax-credit scholarships say parents are the best judges of whether a private school is good for their children, Viteritti brushes that aside as invalid.

Kevin Welner, director of the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center, said Seminole school-district officials have hit on a central issue.

"Is there a fair playing field if the public schools have to play by key rules that private schools are excused from, even when they get publicly subsidized funding?" Welner asks. or 407-883-7885

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