DOE: Majority of scholarship program schools pass accountability muster

Patrick R. Gibbons

Of the 220 private schools participating in scholarship programs from November 2018 to December 2019, 86 were fully compliant, while another 44 schools became compliant before the DOE issued a report to the school, according to the latest DOE accountability report.

The Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education visited more than 200 private schools participating in scholarship programs between November 2018 and October 2019 to ensure compliance with state regulations. In addition to the visits, the DOE investigated 123 written complaints, reviewed hundreds of fiscal reports, handled 14,656 calls, 12,158 voicemails, and 67,653 emails from private schools, scholarship parents and school districts.

That’s a lot of work for a department often accused of overseeing private school scholarship programs with no accountability.

The DOE’s report, released Dec. 16, provides details of school compliance regarding regulations on safety, employee background checks, financial soundness, and legal complaints from the general public.

According to the report, 2,117 private schools from the 2018-19 school year requested permission to continue participating in state scholarship programs. Of those schools, 131 were considered new.

Few of those more than 2,000 schools had regulatory issues according to the DOE’s report:

  • Four schools were suspended for failing to maintain a physical location registered with the DOE. All but one school corrected the error.
  • The DOE investigated 10 schools for fraudulent activity. Two schools were cleared, one school entered into a settlement agreement and six schools were removed from participating in scholarship programs.
  • 49 schools were notified of the need to obtain a surety bond to demonstrate fiscal soundness. All but one school obtained a surety bond to correct the error.
  • 175 schools received McKay scholarship funds in error. All but one school returned the funds and was suspended from accepting scholarships.
  • 1,081 schools earned $250,000 or more from scholarships and were required to complete a financial report by a certified public accountant. Of those, 307 schools were required to conduct corrective actions, and 94 schools were issued a Notice of Noncompliance and may later be suspended from the program if a report is not filed.

State law allows the DOE to visit any private school that has had a notice of noncompliance in the last two years or received a complaint about a violation of state law. Beginning in 2019, the DOE also is required to conduct a site visit on any new school wishing to participate in the program. Of the 220 schools visited, 86 were fully compliant, while another 44 schools became compliant before the DOE issued a report to the school. Of the remaining schools, all but one corrected their issues to remain qualified for the state’s scholarship programs.

Schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for lower-income students also must submit national norm-referenced test results to researchers at the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. According to researchers, 234 schools failed to report test scores in a timely manner. By the time the DOE released the accountability report, just 23 schools had failed to submit test results.

The DOE also received 128 signed complaints from students, parents and faculty regarding private schools. The DOE determined 35 of the complaints were not legally sufficient to investigate. Legally sufficient complaints must demonstrate the school has failed to follow the law, such as having a fire inspection, completing a fiscal report, or conducting background checks on employees. During its investigation, the DOE concluded that 81 of the 93 remaining complaints had been resolved by the private school demonstrating compliance with state law. Twelve complaints remain open, though none is serious enough to require referral to the Office of the Inspector General.

The remainder of the report details the department’s outreach efforts, along with any recent legislative changes to the scholarship programs it oversees.

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