As a rising number of Florida students receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools, there is a growing need for increased accountability for the schools they attend.
Florida’s public schools, after all, are required to follow countless state mandates including requirements for student testing and other accountability measures. But the state’s private schools lack similar oversight to ensure the quality of their curriculum, the qualifications of their teachers and policies to prevent discrimination against their students.
Given that they are private and often religious schools, one could argue that the state has no business dictating such things as parents are free to choose if their children attend. Yet with about $130 million coming directly from the state budget for a new voucher program in the upcoming school year, taxpayers have a right to know whether the money is being well spent.
Parents who qualify for vouchers also deserve to be better informed about the schools where they’re sending their children. More than 105,000 students in the past school year received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which provided up to $7,111 in financial assistance for private school tuition or transportation to another public school district, according to Step Up For Students, the group that helps administer the program.
The average household income of families receiving the scholarships was $25,755, or 9.2 percent above the federal poverty level. The scholarships are funded through contributions from companies that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit in return.
With the contributions leveling off and a long waiting list for the scholarships, state lawmakers in this year’s legislative session approved a new voucher program funded directly from the same pot of money going to public schools and other state needs. They also changed income limits, allowing a family of four making up to about $77,000 annually to qualify.
The changes continue a trend of the state diverting funding from traditional public schools to private and charter schools. The trend appears set to accelerate under Gov. Ron DeSantis, a voucher proponent who has named new conservative members to the state Supreme Court who are more likely to reject any constitutional challenges over the state funding religious education.
But these changes have rightly brought increased scrutiny of the schools getting the money. Last month, the Orlando Sentinel reported that some religious schools that accept vouchers have policies discriminating against gay students or children of same-sex couples.
The Sentinel previously reported on voucher-reliant schools that teach students that dinosaurs and humans lived together, disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and downplay the horrors of slavery. It has also reported on problems with some scholarship schools hiring teachers without degrees and with criminal records, and other issues related to a lack of state oversight.
While these kinds of problems might be limited to a small number of schools, no one really knows without better oversight. If a growing portion of taxpayer money is going to be spent on private schools, the public deserves to know whether the cost is worth it.
This editorial originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun.