Florida leaders may force private schools that accept state tuition vouchers to undergo financial audits and report test scores for some students—two of the ways the state voucher system could be overhauled after recent allegations have triggered a spate of unfavorable publicity.
State Commissioner of Education Jim Horne has already tightened the rules for private schools that accept the vouchers by requiring them to file more information with the state. But the Republican appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush is facing heat from opponents, who claim his agency has been loose with its oversight of voucher money and the schools that receive it.
Allegations in two Florida cities have thrown fuel on the voucher debate.
First, two men were accused of funneling money for a terrorist group through one private school in the program. Then, the state realized $400,000 in scholarship money was missing from an organization in Ocala.
“Certainly, I think we probably had some lessons learned this year,” Mr. Horne’s press secretary, Frances Marine, said last week.
Florida may provide a preview of future contention over regulating private school choice as such programs grow in other places.
While the nation’s largest state-sponsored voucher program is beginning to mature in the Sunshine State, Colorado’s is just getting started and a voucher proposal for the District of Columbia is pending in Congress. State-enacted voucher programs in Ohio and Wisconsin serve students in Cleveland and Milwaukee, respectively.
In Florida, the growing pains include a bipartisan call by lawmakers for changes in the state’s voucher system. The recent developments have also given critics new ammunition to attack Gov. Bush’s education agenda.
The results could mean less control for private schools and slower growth in school choice programs in Florida, and they may be a warning for policymakers elsewhere.
“It’s easy for school choice opponents to latch on to this, which is unfortunate,” said John F. Kirtley of Tampa, the president and chief executive officer of Children First America, a national group that lobbies for school choice.
From All Sides
Even Republicans who support private school choice in Florida want tighter rules for vouchers.
Florida Senate President Jim King, a Republican from Jacksonville, said the issue could be taken up later this fall in a special legislative session. He wants mandatory testing for all students who use vouchers to attend private schools, for the test scores to be made public, and for schools and scholarship organizations to face regular financial audits.
Sen. King said he regrets that the legislature didn’t impose stiffer rules when it approved various kinds of state-supported tuition aid. “I’m not apologizing for what we’ve done, and in a way I am,” he said.
Florida has three state-sponsored programs that finance, directly or indirectly, students’ private school tuition costs. The smallest but best-known is the Opportunity Scholarships program, which currently allows about 663 students in schools with an F on state report cards to pay for private schools or out-of-district public schools.
McKay Scholarships, currently used by about 11,300 students, provide unlimited tuition aid for students in special education who transfer to private schools. A recent Manhattan Institute study showed enormous satisfaction from parents using those scholarships, and the number of students enrolled is up by more than 2,000 from last year.
The most common school vouchers in Florida are the focus of the current debate: the state’s corporate tax-credit scholarships. Those $3,500 vouchers help low-income families enroll their children in private schools. The state expected more than 16,000 students to use the tax-credit scholarships this fall.
Critics want more state oversight of the seven nonprofit groups authorized to award the tax- credit scholarships, and the schools those vouchers support. Money is raised for the scholarships when businesses agree to donate part of their state corporate taxes to the scholarship funds in exchange for a tax break.
Sen. Ron Klein, the Democratic leader of the Senate, said he wants to change the voucher law to require students who use the tuition aid in private schools to take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests, just as students in public schools must do.
“Otherwise, how do you know these voucher schools are doing any better than the public schools?” Mr. Klein said.
Man in the Middle
Florida state Commissioner of Education Jim Horne has tightened the restrictions on private schools that received state-supported vouchers. But recent scandals have critics demanding tougher action.
Most of all, perhaps, the debate over accountability in voucher schools has threatened the standing of Commissioner Horne and the state education department. Gov. Bush tapped Mr. Horne, a former state senator and an accountant, as the state’s first appointed education chief in June 2001.
Mr. Horne, who didn’t have professional experience in education or in running a state agency before his appointment, is taking the blame for the state’s failure to verify the standing of the scholarship organization in Ocala.
Headlines linking alleged supporters of terrorism and a Tampa voucher school haven’t helped.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the department is well aware of the magnifying glass that they find themselves under,” Sen. King said.
Ms. Marine said that Mr. Horne has responded appropriately, and that he has held roundtable discussions with voucher parents across the state. She noted that the tax-credit scholarship money doesn’t even flow through the state education agency.
When officials discovered last month that the Silver Archer Foundation in Ocala had received state money but awarded no scholarships, the agency took “swift action,” Ms. Marine said. The state is investigating how the foundation was approved to issue scholarships, and where the money might be.
Ms. Marine stopped short of endorsing test-score reporting for private schools, but acknowledged the debate is headed in that direction. Since most private schools already give standardized tests, it may not be difficult to require the rest to administer tests, she suggested.
“We don’t want to get into regulating private schools,” Ms. Marine added. “The commissioner just wants to make sure that we maintain the integrity of these programs so that they can continue to thrive.”
While the foundation in Ocala is the center of an investigation, a private school affiliated with the foundation last week was still listed as “approved” for vouchers, according to a state hotline operator and the state’s school choice Web site.
Fodder for Foes
The controversies have given Florida’s voucher opponents the weight to push for stricter rules for private schools. “We think their accountability level should be the same as public schools,” said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Mr. Kirtley of Children First America, who started Florida PRIDE as one of the state’s seven nonprofit groups that give out the tax-credit scholarships, backs audits of groups like his own.
Florida PRIDE cut off scholarship money for more than 100 students attending the Islamic Academy of Florida, in Tampa, after a founder of the school and a former treasurer were jailed and indicted on charges that include using the school as a channel for terrorist money. (“No More Vouchers for Florida Islamic School,” Aug. 6, 2003.)
“It was a very, very difficult decision to make, but we didn’t want to give opponents of this program an extra lever to use against this program,” said Mr. Kirtley, who defended the academy as a school with a strong academic reputation and clean recent audits.
Officials at the schools in Tampa and Ocala could not be reached for comment.