The families of nearly 100,000 Florida students received vouchers worth about $544 million this year as the Legislature has steadily increased support for the programs. That growth has come despite critics who contend that vouchers divert money from public schools to private institutions that do not have the same student-testing or teacher-accountability rules and can freely mix education with religion.
About 45 percent of the state’s private schools that accept state scholarship vouchers rely on them for at least half of their students, the analysis found. That’s up from 30 percent three years ago. And for 200 of them, at least 90 percent of their students are on either the state’s McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities or Florida Tax Credit scholarships for low-income families. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2012.
Jon East, a vice president at Step Up for Students, which administers almost all of the tax-credit scholarships, said many private schools turned to them for survival as fewer parents could pay tuition during the economic downturn. The Legislature’s growing support gives more schools confidence in its staying power, he said.
Of Florida’s about 2,300 private schools, more than 1,500 take vouchers.
A lawsuit filed last summer by the Florida Education Association and several other groups contends the tax-credit program has all the hallmarks of an earlier voucher plan shut down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. Justices ruled then that the previous voucher plan violated the state’s constitution, which requires the state to create one education system. The court let stand, without making a ruling, a lower court decision that the program also violated the constitition by providing public funds for religious institutions.
Before the Supreme Court’s final 2006 ruling, the Tax Credit Scholarship Program was created. Instead of the state providing tax money, it allows private companies to provide the financial support, and then offers those companies tax breaks for doing so.
Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, rejects the notion that the scholarships are private because they are made in lieu of taxes.
“They’re diverting taxpayer money to private usage,” McCall said. “They don’t have to be certified teachers. They don’t have to take the same tests. We’ve created a parallel system.”
Private schools taking vouchers can be vastly different from public schools students might otherwise attend. They’re small: More than half have fewer than 100 students, and hundreds have fewer than 50, often with tiny classes. Some have no strict rules about lesson plans or tests.
Voucher schools also don’t have to take the Florida Standards Assessments tests that public schools administer. Instead, they test students once a year, typically choosing the Stanford Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Terra Nova.
And about 70 percent are religiously affiliated, including some where religion is a central focus.
That includes schools such as The Conrad Academy, a Christian school in east Orange County where more than 90 percent of its about 300 students use one of the two scholarships.
On a recent morning, first-graders at the school stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which was followed by a pledge to the Bible and the Christian flag used in some Protestant churches, a white flag with a red cross on a blue corner.
“We do teach Christian principles,” said Principal Tawanda Mills. “That’s a big attraction for families.”
Alexe Carrion, 17, a sophomore at The Conrad Academy, agreed, saying, “This school is more spiritual. They get to your heart.”
But another thing that draws families is the school’s practice of including most students with disabilities with their typically developing peers. And teachers have the flexibility to slow down the curriculum when students need it.
Kettly Pageot, whose four children use scholarships to attend third grade, first grade and kindergarten at Mount Sinai Junior Academy in Orange County, said she especially likes the small size of the school and the homelike atmosphere.
“As a single mom, I believe in education, especially faith-based,” she said. “If you get your child on that path, they’ll find their way back.”
State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Longwood, who’s on the House Education Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, said vouchers have a profound effect.
“There is a myriad of students that are benefiting from this, and that’s why it’s making it so popular,” Cortes said.
State Rep. Bruce Antone of Orlando, who serves on the House Education Committee, backs vouchers, too, but he and others fret about their rapid growth compared with state support for public schools.
Antone said he also is concerned that the private schools can become overwhelmed by students with special needs or difficult backgrounds and that the schools need more public accountability.
“We’re not sure the students going to these schools are making any yearly progress,” he said.
Data compiled annually by David Figlio, a Northwestern University researcher, show that students at those private schools typically make educational progress comparable to that in other schools nationwide. But some schools do far better, and some do far worse. State law does not force underperforming schools to take any action, including leaving the voucher programs.
Some of the schools that depend heavily on scholarships specialize in the needs of students with disabilities. The Conductive Education Center of Orlando uses the McKay scholarship to make its $20,000 tuition more affordable for parents of children with disabilities. The school has 32 students.
But most of the growing number of schools that rely on the scholarships run on a combination of both.