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10 voucher schools unaccredited, newspaper says

But state officials say the private schools getting taxpayers' money don't have to be.

By Associated Press
Published May 27, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Nearly a third of the private schools that take state money to teach students from failing public schools aren't accredited, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

But state education officials say they don't have to be as long as they meet certain standards. The officials also note that most public schools aren't accredited either.

The Palm Beach Post reported that the state paid 10 unaccredited private schools to teach students from failing public schools in the "opportunity scholarship" program this year, and said it may have violated the Florida school voucher law's intent. Thirty-four schools are receiving opportunity scholarship money.

The Senate sponsor of the 1999 law creating the voucher program said private schools were intended to be accredited, but the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush - who championed vouchers and shepherded them into being - says they weren't.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said Wednesday "it was very clear that accreditation was not required," pointing to a form for voucher schools that includes a line asking unaccredited schools to identify accrediting program criteria that they would be willing to adhere to.

DOE spokeswoman Frances Marine also noted that most public schools aren't accredited. Of 3,757 public schools in Florida, 1,500, or 40 percent, have some sort of accreditation. She said because of that, the question of accreditation for private schools was debated in 1999 and rejected.

Marine said that while 10 of the voucher schools weren't accredited, the Post story was misleading because 84 percent of opportunity scholarship students were in accredited private schools.

Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, who was Senate president when the voucher law was passed, said the law only required private schools to use instruction, curriculum and attendance standards used by accrediting groups.

"If we had intended for the schools to be accredited, we would have said: Schools shall be accredited," Jennings said.

But the Republican Senate sponsor of the 1999 bill said the intent was for schools to be accredited.

"I meant there had to be an accrediting body and the school had to be accredited," said Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg.

The 1999 law created Opportunity Scholarships to give students of chronically failing public schools the option of attending private schools at no expense to the parents. For the first three years of the Opportunity Scholarship program, only four Catholic schools - all accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference - and one Montessori school participated.

But the program has grown in the last two years and now more than 600 students in six counties get opportunity scholarships to go to private school.

The vouchers are for an average of just under $4,000 a year per student, which can be used to cover private school tuition. The state spent just under $2.5-million this school year on Opportunity Scholarships.

Supporters of accreditation say it avoids sending state dollars to "fly-by-night" schools created specifically to take public money.

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 01:00:38]


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