This is a story about vouchers in Florida, where the state constitution forbids the use of public funds "directly or indirectly" for religious schools. Message to school-children: Ignore the state Constitution. It is meaningless.
The Florida state Constitution forbids the use of public funds in religious schools.
Article 1, Section 3 of the state Constitution says:
"There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."
Jeb Bush wanted to amend that language so Florida could provide vouchers for religious schools. So, he got an amendment on the ballot in 2012 called the Religious Freedom Amendment, or Amendment 8. What clever wording! How many people would vote against "religious freedom"? Enough to defeat Amendment 8. Fifty-five point five percent (55.5%) of voters said NO to vouchers.
But that didn't stop Jeb and his friends from cooking up ways to bypass the State Constitution and the clear will of the people.
They proceeded to develop voucher programs masquerading as something else: tax credits, scholarships, whatever.
The Orlando Sentinel just concluded an investigation of Florida's voucher programs and concluded it is an unregulated sector that enrolls 140,000 students and costs taxpayers $1 Billion per year. All in a state whose Constitution prohibits vouchers and whose voters opposed changing the Constitution.
The series begins like this:
"Private schools in Florida will collect nearly $1 billion in state-backed scholarships this year through a system so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records.
"The limited oversight of Florida's scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.
"Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.
"Despite the problems, the number of children using Florida's scholarship programs has more than tripled in the past decade to 140,000 students this year at nearly 2,000 private schools. If students using Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships made up their own school district, they would be Florida's sixth-largest in student population, just ahead of the Jacksonville area. "The scholarships are good. The problem is the school," said Edda Melendez, an Osceola County mother. "They need to start regulating the private schools."
"Melendez complained to the state last year about a private school in Kissimmee. The school promised specialized help for her 5-year-old twin sons, who have autism, but one of their teachers was 21 years old and didn't have a bachelor's degree or experience with autistic children.
"I feel bad for all the parents who didn't know what's going on there," she told the state. "Last year, nearly a quarter of all state scholarship students - 30,000 - attended 390 private schools in Central Florida. The schools received $175.6 million worth of the scholarships, which are for children from low-income families and those with disabilities.
"During its investigation, the Sentinel visited more than 30 private schools in Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola and Brevard counties, reviewed thousands of pages of public records and interviewed dozens of parents, private school operators, state officials and policy experts. "Unlike public schools, private schools, including those that accept the state scholarships, operate free from most state rules. Private school teachers and principals, for example, are not required to have state certification or even college degrees.
"One Orlando school, which received $500,000 from the public programs last year, has a 24-year-old principal still studying at a community college.
"Nor do private schools need to follow the state's academic standards. One curriculum, called Accelerated Christian Education or ACE, is popular in some private schools and requires students to sit at partitioned desks and fill out worksheets on their own for most of the day, with little instruction from teachers or interaction with classmates.
"And nearly anything goes in terms of where private school classes meet. The Sentinel found scholarship students in the same office building as Whozz Next Bail Bonds on South Orange Blossom Trail, in a Colonial Drive day-care center that reeked of dirty diapers and in a school near Winter Park that was facing eviction and had wires dangling from a gap in the office ceiling and a library with no books, computers or furniture.
"However, scholarships can be appealing because some private schools offer rigorous academics on modern campuses, unique programs or small classes that allow students more one-on-one attention, among other benefits. Bad experiences at public schools also fuel interest in scholarships.
"Parents opting out of public schools often cite worries about large campuses, bullying, what they call inadequate services for special-needs children and state-required testing. Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as "testing refugees."
"But the Sentinel found problems with Florida's programs, which make up the largest school voucher and scholarship initiative in the nation:
. At least 19 schools submitted documents since 2012 that misled state officials about fire or health inspections, including some with forged inspectors' names or altered dates. Eight of the schools still received scholarship money with the state's blessing.
. Upset parents sometimes complain to the state, assuming it has some say over academic quality at these private schools. It does not. "They can conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate," reads a typical response from the Florida Department of Education to a parent. . The education department has stopped some schools from taking scholarships when they violated state rules, from the one in Fort Lauderdale led by a man convicted of stealing $20,000 to a school in Gainesville caught depositing scholarship checks for students no longer enrolled. But the department often gives schools second chances and sometimes doesn't take action even when alerted to a problem. . Florida's approach is so hands-off that a state directory lists private schools that can accommodate students with special needs - such as autism - without evidence the schools' staff is trained to handle disabilities."
Since Betsy DeVos considers Florida to be a national model, you should read this series and learn what's heading your way and stop it before it gets into your state. **************************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Department of Curriculum & Instruction College of Education and Human Services Southern Illinois University Carbondale 625 Wham Drive / MC 4610 Carbondale, Illinois 62901