- 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.
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.” Continue Reading →