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Published in Print: November 26, 2003, as Fla. Cracks Down on Voucher Schools; Suspends Aid to 46

Fla. Cracks Down on Voucher Schools; Suspends Aid to 46

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Florida has stopped payments to 46 private schools that have not met new accountability rules for schools receiving money under the state's high- profile voucher programs.

Schools that receive the state-supported tuition aid were required to submit 12- page compliance forms to the Florida Department of Education last month. The state halted payments on Nov. 1 for schools that had failed to submit the forms, and for schools whose forms showed deficiencies but no proof that they were being addressed.

"We want to make sure these students are being well served" in the state's school choice programs, education department spokeswoman Frances Marine said last week.

The crackdown is the latest twist in the evolution of state-sponsored school vouchers in Florida, and it could frame legislative debate in 2004 about even tighter accountability rules for private schools that accept the vouchers.

Two men were accused of using a religious school in Tampa that accepted vouchers to raise money for terrorists. Then a scholarship group in Ocala was suspected of misusing about $400,000 meant for tuition for students from low-income families. ("Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules," Sept. 17, 2003.)

More than 27,000 Florida students have attended school this fall using one of the state's three types of vouchers.

More than 16,000 of those students are from low-income families that used corporate-tax-credit scholarships this fall. The scholarships are financed by businesses that donate a share of their state taxes to nonprofit scholarship organizations, which in turn give students tuition money for schools of their choice.

The state also offers the McKay Scholarships for about 12,000 special education students, as well as Opportunity Scholarships for roughly 660 students this fall who left public schools that had failing grades on state report cards.

Private schools suspended from the voucher programs had been able to receive money for all three scholarships, but schools receiving the corporate-tax-credit scholarships were most affected by the suspension, Ms. Marine said. Parents were notified that the payments had stopped, and students were given other public or private school options, she said.

No numbers were available on how many students might have transferred because of the stopped payments.

Legislation Brewing

Having only 46 schools fail to submit compliance forms out of nearly 1,200 private schools receiving state aid shows "incredible" success on the part of the private schools and the voucher program, said Denise Lasher, the executive director of the Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations, in Tampa.

Most of the 46 schools were not in compliance for technical reasons. "The top two [reasons] were radon testing and scoliosis screening, which is only required for 7th graders," Ms. Marine said.

The state asks private schools for enrollment numbers, and whether they have enough money to operate for the year. Other questions pertain to immunizations and safety codes.

Two schools with small numbers of voucher students decided the new rules—instituted after the recent bad publicity—were not worth the trouble and dropped the program, Ms. Marine said.

Two other private schools not in compliance received their November payments by accident. Future payments will be withheld if those schools don't comply by Dec. 15, Ms. Marine said.

Gov. Jeb Bush and his appointed commissioner of education, Jim Horne, both Republicans, back legislation calling for expanded accountability rules for the private schools. They would require quarterly financial reports and student testing at each school's discretion.("Fla. Vouchers Move Toward Tighter Rules," Sept. 17, 2003.)

But Sen. Ron Klein, the Democrat leader of the state Senate, said last week that he wants more. He favors mandatory student testing through the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests— the same ones public schools give—for private schools using state vouchers, and for the scores to be made public.

He also wants to require that the private schools provide certified teachers, that the schools be accredited by a national private school organization, that all owners and operators undergo background checks, and that the state impose sanctions on schools that break the rules.

Ms. Lasher said she had no problems with requiring background checks, but she contended that accreditation and forced FCAT testing and reporting would be too much. "Everybody wanted some assurance that the program is working," she said. "We don't think it requires the FCAT to demonstrate that."

Vol. 23, Issue 13, Pages 14-15

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