When it comes to holding accountable private schools receiving tax money through vouchers, the standards are a little different than those public schools are held to.
Published August 3, 2003
For a man who sees his job as holding a gun to Florida schools, Education Commissioner Jim Horne turns mellow about vouchers. Private schools receiving public money don't need standardized tests, state certification of teachers or an approved curriculum, and the state doesn't need to worry all that much about financial audits. "The primary accountability and responsibility," Horne says, "lies with the parent."
This line of logic is also embraced by the organizations that are dispensing school vouchers, the groups Horne is supposed to regulate. In fact, Tina Dupree, director of Miami-based Florida Child, the state's largest corporate tax credit voucher organization, was more blunt in remarks recently to the Miami Herald. "If the parent is satisfied," she said, "why should (taxpayers) even care?"
The obvious answer is that Florida's annual voucher budget is now $146-million and growing precipitously, but the more important distinction is that the money is supposed to help children learn. It is supposed to deliver the kind of education that Horne otherwise insists is possible only by setting high standards, measuring them through standardized tests and aligning money with success. When those tests were used in public schools to flunk third-grade students and withhold diplomas from high school seniors, Horne insisted that the parent's opinion of the student's progress and the school's fitness did not matter. In private schools, he's saying that what the parent thinks is really all that matters.
Is that accountability?
"I think parents want what's best for their kids," says Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch. "The reality is that even informed parents don't always know. We've seen that parents can be perfectly content as schools engage in grade inflation and social promotion. They don't discover until six or eight years later that their child is not really making the grade."
Calabro argues that the government must be held to account for all tax money it spends, and he is joined in his thinking by Senate President Jim King. King, a Republican who voted to support the state's three different voucher programs, has called for a review of corporate tax vouchers as well as vouchers, named after former Senate President John McKay, that are given to disabled students. But, strangely, one of the biggest obstacles to a meaningful debate may be Horne himself.
Horne transferred a Department of Education employee who claimed the state was so lax in voucher enforcement that it didn't even know which schools or which students received the public money. He also yanked that employee, Bob Metty, off a Senate panel reviewing the vouchers.
When asked about the lack of oversight, Horne responds as though he doesn't understand the question. Of the $350,000 in tax money that went last year to a Tampa Islamic school the FBI claims is a base for terrorism, Horne says "that proves to me there was a system of accountability in place." Of the McKay voucher money that once was sent to a St. Petersburg school with broken windows, overgrown vegetation, no license to operate a school and citations for housing code violations, he similarly claims his "system" worked. When asked about the lack of record-keeping, the failure to adopt rules or auditing standards, his spokeswoman offers a standard refrain: "The department has been and continues to be in full compliance with the statute."
Here's a new question the Senate might direct to Horne: If parental satisfaction is the standard by which to judge whether voucher money is being well spent, then what happens if the parent is also the teacher? That may sound facetious, but among the serious voucher issues DOE is ducking is one about whether it is lawful to dispense McKay vouchers to home-school organizations.
At least two such organizations are receiving tax money, and a Palm Beach County woman told DOE that one, Castle Oak Academy in Boynton Beach, was willing to accept a McKay voucher for her disabled son on the agreement that it keep half the money. She was planning to teach her son at home.
Castle Oak is listed on DOE's registry of voucher-eligible schools, though it calls itself "a nonprofit organization serving families and children who want to learn in a home-based environment." The McKay law is clear that the vouchers, which can be as much as $20,000 a student, are to be spent at a "private school of choice," schools that "meet state and local health and safety laws and codes" and "demonstrate fiscal soundness" and "adhere to the tenets of its published disciplinary procedures prior to the expulsion of a scholarship student." In other words, real schools.
Asked on Thursday and Friday to explain the Castle Oak vouchers, DOE provided no records and no answers. When asked earlier in the week about the program's oversight, though, Horne was ebullient: "We can say now that McKay is one of the most successful programs in the nation, and there's some verifiable information out there to support that." His source for such a claim: a study of parental satisfaction.