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Come fall, the heat is off

The state's much-touted sworn affidavits are making school vouchers look increasingly like blank checks.

Published November 6, 2003

With the cameras rolling, state education commissioner Jim Horne stood tall in the saddle. These private schools that get tax money, he said in the heat of August, are going to start answering for what they do and they are going to answer under sworn affidavit. If they don't, he said, their vouchers will be yanked by November.

Well, autumn is closing in on winter, and Horne is looking less like a John Wayne than a Don Knotts. As it turns out, Horne, once the cameras were turned off, took the swear out of sworn and the nip out of November. His plan to bring some immediate accountability to the corporate tax credit voucher program is beginning to resemble a substitute teacher battling to restore classroom decorum: Will you sit in your seats, pretty please?

The six-page sworn compliance form, as originally announced by Horne, was to provide assurance to the Department of Education that voucher schools were following all state laws and to give parents better consumer information about what the schools have to offer. To date, according to a review of DOE records by the Palm Beach Post, neither has really occurred. Some 67 schools have yet to even answer the questionnaire and all are apparently still free to receive tax-supported vouchers. One high school director in Boca Raton told the Post he had never heard of the compliance form, though his school still receives voucher payments. "When did they want it by?" he asked.

Ineptitude seems to play a leading role in these regulatory lapses, but political pressure is not far behind. Though most private school operators have publicly applauded the new accountability measures, some are offering a different assessment in private. Patricia Hardman, who runs a Tallahassee school serving disabled students, wrote Gov. Jeb Bush to complain that the form was "a highly potential source of embarrassment for you by those who want to destroy parental choice and by the liberal media." Seven days after receiving her letter, the Post reports, the governor ordered Horne to remove the requirement that the form be sworn and notarized.

Such political paranoia only hurts the voucher program. All governments have to answer for the tax dollars they spend, and the truth is that some of the most serious criticisms of Florida vouchers are coming from those who support private education. A new report by the Senate Education Committee is brutal in its assessment. Of corporate vouchers, it says: "The record is clear that there is very little or no state oversight. . . . It has been difficult to determine who at (DOE) is actually running the . . . program. . . . There is no department procedure for verifying compliance with the law. . . . The fiscal soundness determination is rubber-stamped. . . . Scholarship-funding organizations are not routinely monitored to ensure compliance with the law. . . . The Board of Education has not adopted rules mandating income verification. . . . The state does not know if students . . . are having direct contact with individuals who have been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude."

Horne may like to pretend he is walking the beat, but his brand of policing is why the Legislature will be forced to act next spring. In the meantime, given his performance to date on voucher oversight, these latest delays and excuses are just more of the same.

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