Some private schools operate solely on public money. Others combine public scholarships and tuition. Some do not take public money.
The rules for private schools are different. Public accountability is limited. Teachers do not need certification. Academic achievement is mixed. The Sentinel story has been excerpted below. It is a side of the story worth telling. What we do not know is if it is money well spent.
ORLANDO SENTINEl, SUNDAY 4-12-15 A-1
Private schools in Florida are becoming vastly more dependent on state voucher programs that pay all or part of tuition for students with disabilities or from low-income families, an Orlando Sentinel analysis has found. The families of nearly 100,000 Florida students received vouchers worth about $544 million this year as the Legislature has steadily increased support for the programs.
Private schools taking vouchers can be vastly different from public schools students might otherwise attend. They’re small: More than half have fewer than 100 students, and hundreds have fewer than 50, often with tiny classes. Some have no strict rules about lesson plans or tests.
Voucher schools also don’t have to take the Florida Standards Assessments tests that public schools administer. Instead, they test students once a year, typically choosing the Stanford Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Terra Nova.
About 45 percent of the state’s private schools that accept state scholarship vouchers rely on them for at least half of their students, the analysis found. That’s up from 30 percent three years ago. And for 200 of them, at least 90 percent of their students are on either the state’s McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities or Florida Tax Credit scholarships for low-income families. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2012.
And about 70 percent are religiously affiliated, including some where religion is a central focus. That includes schools such as The Conrad Academy, a Christian school in east Orange County where more than 90 percent of its about 300 students use one of the two scholarships. On a recent morning, first-graders at the school stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which was followed by a pledge to the Bible and the Christian flag used in some Protestant churches, a white flag with a red cross on a blue corner.
“We do teach Christian principles,” said Principal Tawanda Mills. “That’s a big attraction for families.”
Alexe Carrion, 17, a sophomore at The Conrad Academy, agreed, saying, “This school is more spiritual. They get to your heart.”
But another thing that draws families is the school’s practice of including most students with disabilities with their typically developing peers. And teachers have the flexibility to slow down the curriculum when students need it. Some of the schools that depend heavily on scholarships specialize in the needs of students with disabilities. The Conductive Education Center of Orlando uses the McKay scholarship to make its $20,000 tuition more affordable for parents of children with disabilities. The school has 32 students.
But most of the growing number of schools that rely on the scholarships run on a combination of both. Bridge to Independence, a 110-student private school at the edge of Pine Hills, has 97 percent of its students on vouchers. It caters to students with disabilities and those who have fallen through the cracks at other schools, said Executive Director Nicole Phillips Hollis.
State Rep. Bruce Antone of Orlando, who serves on the House Education Committee, backs vouchers, too, but he and others fret about their rapid growth compared with state support for public schools. Antone said he also is concerned that the private schools can become overwhelmed by students with special needs or difficult backgrounds and that the schools need more public accountability.
“We’re not sure the students going to these schools are making any yearly progress,” he said.
Data compiled annually by David Figlio, a Northwestern University researcher, show that students at those private schools typically make educational progress comparable to that in other schools nationwide. But some schools do far better, and some do far worse. State law does not force underperforming schools to take any action, including leaving the voucher programs.