Concerns Raised over Scholarship Program; ACCOUNTABILITY? Critics Say Private Schools That Receive Money Aren't Held to Same Standards as Public Schools

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Byline: ABEL HARDING and PAUL PINKHAM

If the goal of Florida's Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship program is simply to reduce state spending on public education, it's graded an A.

If the goal of the program is to improve education for low-income students, it scores an incomplete.

But if the goal is to ensure the same educational accountability Florida politicians demand of public schools, then the program gets an F.

Since 2002, the program has funneled nearly $500 million in tax revenues to scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private Florida schools, many of them religious-based. In 10 years, the program could receive more than $1 billion a year.

The students can qualify for scholarships of up to $4,606, which cover tuition and transportation. In Northeast Florida, 3,316 students participated in the program last year, keeping as much as $23 million out of local public schools.

Comparing the program to public schools is all but impossible because the Legislature - for which public school accountability has been a hallmark - allows different standards for this program. It hasn't required scholarship students to take the FCAT or teachers to be certified - both requirements in public schools.

The program has accomplished many of the same goals as a voucher program that the Florida Supreme Court found unconstitutional. The major difference between the programs is the scholarship money flows from a nonprofit courtesy of tax revenue that never made it to state coffers.

The Legislature also set up specific laws to shield many details about the program, including which businesses participate, how much they give and how well schools are performing. However, two consecutive annual studies ordered by lawmakers showed the scholarship students are performing no better than public school students.

The program allows companies to divert up to 75 percent of corporate income taxes to one of two Florida nonprofits administering the program. The program's popularity resulted in the Legislature expanding it this year, authorizing it to grow annually by 25 percent.

A review of the program also found:

- Unlike vouchers, it isn't limited to students at failing schools. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of the students in the program came from D and F schools while nearly half were diverted from A schools.

- There are no educators on the program's oversight board. The board is primarily made up of lobbyists, including former U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, a staunch voucher advocate.

- Lawmakers increased the administrative budget this year, making it possible for up to $4.5 million to be spent annually on marketing the program.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The inability to adequately compare scholarship students' progress with their public school counterparts troubles even the most ardent voucher supporters. "It's a legitimate concern that students participating in these programs don't receive the same kind of review and accountability," said Joseph Viteritti, a member of the American Center for School Choice board and public policy professor at Hunter College in New York.

Viteritti, who has testified as an expert in school voucher cases, said he supports the concept because it empowers poor parents and gives them a voice in the education debate. "For the same reasons I think choice is good, I think choice needs to be accountable," he said.

Not that there haven't been attempts.

David Figlio, professor of social policy and economics at Northwestern University, oversaw a project required by Florida law that compared testing data at public schools and private schools that received scholarship funding. According to his report, there were no noticeable differences in testing gains between private school students in the program and public schools.

With no FCAT requirement, however, standardized tests at the private schools run the gamut. …