Florida House panel talks beefed-up school choice oversight

Florida can strengthen oversight of its private schools that accept state scholarships without compromising their character.

That was the message a group of national experts and state school choice groups delivered to a state House panel after an Orlando Sentinel investigation raised questions about oversight.

That might require putting more staff in the state school choice office, giving parents better information about what happens in private schools and lifting statutory caps on site visits by Department of Education officials.

Adam Peshek of the Foundation for Excellence in Education explained to the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee how regulation of Florida school choice programs compares to other states. The McKay scholarship program resembles other states’ special needs vouchers. But tax credit scholarship programs tend to be less regulated. Florida is home to “one of the more heavily regulated tax credit programs across the county.”

Some states, like Ohio and Indiana, had extensive regulation of private schools before private school choice programs took effect. Basketball-loving Hoosiers, for example, require private schools to be accredited before they can participate in athletics. States should be wary of adding new regulations, which can prevent quality private schools from participating.

That prompted a question by Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami: “Should we consider our regulations on traditional public schools?”Peshek said he felt public schools should get more freedom as parental choice proliferates. Florida lawmakers in recent years have pushed to deregulate the highest-performing public schools and use charter school-style autonomy to help turn around low-performing district schools.

“I think it’s a fair thing to say that as we move to systems where you have more consumer choice, the top-down regulations could be lessened,” he said.

Several members of the panel questioned statutory limits Department of Education staff’s ability to conduct random site visits of private schools that accept scholarships. The law limits the department to visiting seven schools that accept tax credit scholarships and three schools that accept McKay scholarships. It’s also allowed to visit schools with a history of compliance problems.

Robin Rennick, of the coalition of schools that accept McKay scholarships for children with special needs, said the caps were put in place when private school scholarship programs were new, and participating schools were wary of state oversight.

Now, she said, the state should lift those caps and conduct mandatory site visits on new schools that accept scholarships. It should also require McKay-accepting schools to produce “written contracts” that spell out the services students will receive, and to provide parents with quarterly updates on student progress, rather than the annual updates the law requires.

McKay schools range from the Growing Minds Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which serves seven students in rural Gulf County, to schools that serve more than 1,000 students – of whom only a few dozen might receive scholarships. Rennick said her proposals would improve oversight without threatening that diversity.

“We need to be able to let McKay schools do what they do best, and one of the things is to be different,” she said.

One suggestion for other scholarship programs would increase the number of schools subject to financial oversight. Schools that receive more than $250,000 in either tax credit or Gardiner Scholarship funds have to submit financial reports to scholarship funding organizations (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, is one such organization.) Legislation passed earlier this year increases the consequences for schools that don’t meet this requirement. But lawmakers could combine scholarship programs when they calcualte the $250,000 threshold, subjecting more schools to financial oversight.

Another suggestion would require the state to receive school fire inspections directly from local fire departments, making it easier for officials to spot potential safety or compliance issues.

James Herzog, of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested the Department of Education might need additional staff to monitor reports and inspect more private schools in-person. Reps. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie and Ralph Massulo, R-Lecanto made similar points.

Adam Miller, who directs the state’s school choice office, said simply: “We would be interested to have that discussion about necessary resources.”

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