A closer look at Orlando Sentinel story on Florida school choice programs

Quick summary:

  • The Orlando Sentinel identified some legitimate issues that deserve fixes but also distorted the overall effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and participating schools by omitting crucial information and context. The full body of evidence does not support the newspaper’s characterization of the system as broken – in fact, just the opposite.
  • The scholarship gives low-income parents significant power to determine which school is best for their child. Studies of academic outcomes suggest the vast majority are choosing schools that lead to better results, including far higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
  • The Sentinel highlighted an Orlando school, TDR Academy, as an example of a poor choice made by scholarship parents. This subjective judgment was made from two visits totaling less than two hours and based partly on the school’s modest facilities. In fact, the school is producing strong learning gains for its low-income and special needs students. Read more here.
  • No education sector has a perfect compliance record or found means to exclude every bad actor, and scholarship supporters are committed to continuous improvement. But over the past five years, state regulators have removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denied participation to 18 applicants, and sanctioned scores of others, while school districts have shut down few if any schools for performance-related issues.
  • Financial fraud associated with scholarship programs is rare and amounts to less than .01 percent of total funding. Step Up For Students led a recent effort to strengthen financial reporting for participating schools, and a change in state law this year gives regulators more discretion to sanction schools that CPAs flag as problematic. The Sentinel does not mention that reported financial fraud in Florida public schools exceeds the amount in scholarship programs.
  • The Sentinel believes the scholarship is problematic because participating private schools are not required to employ state-certified teachers. In fact, many private schools do anyway. Further, the Sentinel omits the fact that teacher absenteeism is chronic in high-poverty public schools – and that many districts do not require substitutes to have college degrees.

By Jon East and Ron Matus

In the city where President Trump visited a Catholic school to declare Florida’s scholarship program for disadvantaged children to be a national model, the Orlando Sentinel offered its response this week. But its own bombastic claim – that the state operates the “most loosely regulated school choice program in the country” – is sensationalized nonsense.

In three lengthy stories, the newspaper spotlighted a handful of problem private schools, and underscored a few legitimate issues that deserve thoughtful remedies. But its work product, described as six months of investigative work and presented by a respected metropolitan newspaper, reads like journalistic guesswork with a grudge. “Schools Without Rules” is every bit as hyperbolic as its headline.

The two leading examples in the Sentinel’s “Schools Without Rules” were both revoked for violating rules. The first was removed from scholarship programs over the summer, while the other, which the state revoked on Tuesday, had a total of 19 students, all on scholarship (11 from Step Up For Students *). That’s 19 out of 140,000 scholarship students statewide. One of the newspaper’s four key investigative findings is the state’s web site directory allows schools to describe themselves to prospective parents, which is certainly less than ideal but also tagged with a bold “DISCLAIMER” note at the top of the web page. Is that truly a scandal?

The reporting lacks precision and calibration.

The state’s oversight, the Sentinel writes, is “limited.” A curriculum called “Accelerated Christian Education” is delivered at “some” schools. The state Department of Education (DOE) gives unwarranted second chances to schools “often.” One Orlando school has “some” teachers without degrees. The state allows “many” schools to enroll scholarship students when they first open. “Many” private schools lack amenities at public schools. The list of regulatory requirements is “short,” the barrier to entry is “low.”

The reporting is also undermined by some blatant errors. In an accompanying video, the Sentinel reached for a crowning conclusion – that Florida operates “the most loosely operated school choice program in the country” – that has no factual basis. Every serious examination of tax credit scholarship programs across the states ranks Florida at or near the top – so much so that the free-market Friedman Foundation issued a 2014 report criticizing Florida as the most heavily regulated in the nation, and a front-page New York Times story in 2012 offered it up as a positive contrast to far less-regulated programs. Just as troubling, the Sentinel misrepresented per-pupil spending in Florida public schools, comparing the value of a tax credit scholarship to public per-pupil operating costs alone. The full per-pupil figure in Florida public schools was $10,308 last year, according to recent analysis by Florida TaxWatch, which means scholarship students received less than 60 percent of their public school counterparts.

The project itself appears driven by some basic confirmation bias. Reporters sought out private schools that don’t look like public schools and, unsurprisingly, found them. They seemed particularly fascinated with schools in shopping centers, like Orlando’s TDR Learning Academy, which serves low-income, disabled and predominantly Hispanic students. Such locales are probably not everyone’s cup of tea and, as a result, serve only a small fraction of the 140,000 scholarship students. At the same time, it is always dangerous to judge any book solely by its cover.

TDR was founded by a couple who grew frustrated after their son, who has learning disabilities tied to a lifetime of severe medical problems, perpetually struggled in public school. Its standardized test scores show students tested in each of the last two years are, on average, making double-digit academic gains.

The Sentinel didn’t mention this in its description of TDR. According to the principal, its reporters never asked about the school’s history, or its academic outcomes. The reporters apparently determined, based on two brief visits, that the school wasn’t up to their standards of what a good school should be.

This utter lack of academic context is the most troubling absence in the Sentinel’s report, an omission that unfortunately calls into question the newspaper’s motivations. The reporters never explained how they chose the 30 schools they would visit. But they did offer two obscure backhanded references – that “some private schools offer rigorous academics” and that “Catholic schools are among some of the most well-regarded and long-established private schools that take Florida’s scholarships” – by way of presumably acknowledging that they steered clear of any school they thought might be high-performing.

Worse, they willfully disregarded 10 years’ worth of standardized testing results and trivialized the findings of a new and respected national study on college attendance. The academic record is clear. Tax Credit Scholarship students are required to take nationally norm-referenced tests approved by the state and the trend has been consistent for the past decade: Students who choose the scholarship are the lowest performers in the public schools they leave behind, and they are making the same gains academically each year as students of all incomes nationally. The Urban Institute report goes a big step further. It compared 60,000 comparable scholarship and public school students over a seven-year period to report that students who are on the scholarship for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college, and, for those who secured the scholarships in earlier grades (which the vast majority do), 29 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees.

This is not to dismiss the Sentinel’s work out of hand: Over the past five years, the Florida Department of Education has sanctioned 19 schools for fraudulently producing fire and/or health inspections. State law inexplicably limits the number of schools DOE regulators can visit each year. Agape Christian Academy in Orlando, a chronic violator of state regulations, indeed deserved its fate, having been removed from the scholarship programs in August. The DOE appears ready to do the same for the Brevard County school that managed to reconstitute itself, twice, despite ties to a principal charged with molesting a student (though the Sentinel reporters refused to divulge their findings to DOE so that it could have acted sooner).

Even here, though, it’s worth noting the Sentinel’s omissions. Its expose of Agape ran 2,700 words. Yet it failed to note that state law was changed this year to give regulators more authority to crack down on schools like Agape that, thanks to changes made to state-required financial reports, will be more likely to have their financial issues flagged. It also left out a telling trend line– that the number of tax credit scholarship students at Agape had dropped by two thirds over the past five years, from more than 200 to fewer than 70. That’s another sign that parents can drive quality when given the power to choose schools – and the power to leave them if they’re not satisfied.

In the end, most of the Sentinel’s findings are offered with no sense of context. Yes, “upset parents sometimes complain to the state,” but at least three independent surveys have reported overwhelming parental satisfaction with the scholarships. Yes, 19 private schools submitted misleading fire or health inspections over the past five years, but a 2003 Sentinel series highlighted more than 1,000 fire code violations – some of them potentially life-threatening – in scores of Orange district schools. Yes, the state discovered eight schools with staff members who had criminal records, yet since 2012, nearly 500 teachers in Central Florida have been sanctioned for misconduct.

Regulatory issues in the scholarship program are ripe for scrutiny and debate. But the Sentinel careened from fair questions to sweeping indictment. What resulted was mostly hype.

*Step Up For Students publishes this blog and helps administer Florida’s Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarship programs.

This post is a work in progress. Please check back for updates.

4 Responses to A closer look at Orlando Sentinel story on Florida school choice programs

  1. Anonymous October 20, 2017 at 6:15 am #

    Not accurate

  2. MackK October 20, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

    Who funds redefinED? And where is the listing of staffers with bios?

    • Travis Pillow
      Travis Pillow October 20, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

      Hi Mack,
      As noted at the bottom of the post, this blog is published by Step Up For Students. As noted on our about page, Readers should know that our editors represent professionally the interests of a nonprofit organization in Florida, Step Up For Students, that administers a scholarship for more than 100,000 low-income children, as well as Gardiner Scholarships for children with special needs.

      To see bios for authors, you can click the links on their bylines, including in this post.

      Thank you for reading.

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