Florida school vouchers for all: Great idea or ‘casino gambling’ with kids’ education?

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | March 2, 2023

Florida leaders are poised this month to expand school voucher programsto every student, a move celebrated by school choice advocates who say all parents deserve state funding to help pay for whatever education they deem best for their children.

But critics argue an expansion will mean more public money spent on private, often religious, schools that operate without state oversight.

Some hire teachers without college degrees and deny admission to certain children — most often those who don’t speak English fluently, have disabilities or are gay. Some use Christian biology books that unlike mainstream texts discredit evolution and declare, “Only God could have made a platypus.”

Critics also fear the planned expansion will decimate public school budgets — estimates of funding losses vary from $210 million to $4 billion in the first year — and encourage private schools of questionable quality to open or expand.

A Volusia County man planning to open a new private school in August and take vouchers had his preschool yanked from Florida’s pre-Kindergarten program after leaving a child sleeping on a bus and being cited for other safety violations.

The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, testified against the voucher expansion bill during a legislative committee meeting in January.

“What we’re introducing here is casino gambling into education and that’s of great, great concern,” he said, telling lawmakers he feared parents could be convinced to “sell their child’s future” by enrolling in a poor-quality private school.

“There are good actors and bad actors out there and there are nefarious actors out there,” Meyer said in an interview. “We need to fully fund public schools and then every child will get the education they deserve.”

Leaders of Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature, which begins its 2023 session Tuesday, want state voucher programs that now provide scholarships to more than 252,000 children from low-income families or with disabilities to be open to all students.

That means any parent could receive a scholarship for their child — to be used for private school tuition or homeschooling services and supplies — as long as that student was not enrolled in public school. They call their legislation “landmark” and “visionary” and say it would give all parents the “freedom to customize their children’s education” in a way many now cannot afford.

“People are looking for choices,” said Juan Balbuena,founder of One Accord Christian Academyin northeast Orange County, where most of his 50 students now use state scholarships to pay tuition. “I think parents should have a choice.”

One Accord, which shares facilities with Balbuena’s affiliated church, attracts parents who want Bible-based lessons, small classes and teachers who speak Spanish, he said.

They like the “loving,” Christian atmosphere on his small campus, said Balbuena, whose school’s admissions application misspelled the words childinformation and Christian, among others.

One Accord uses a workbook-based curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education that touts itself as a “cost-effective” way to run Christian schools with “minimal staffing.” The program calls for students to spend most days sitting in cubicles doing workbooks — up to 12 a year for each subject.

A social studies workbook downplays slavery as a cause of the Civil War and say Southerners did not want to battle but “simply wanted to be left alone and allowed to conduct business as a separate nation.” A science book says, “The Bible is an accurate description of the universe. Science will not contradict the Bible.”

20 years in the making

Florida, considered a national leader in school choice, adopted its first school voucher program more than 20 years ago. Most current participants use the voucher to pay private school tuition, though some families with disabled children use the money to buy equipment, homeschooling lessons or therapy.

The Legislature is following a national trend in Republican-dominated states. Iowa’s GOP governor signed a universal voucher bill on Jan. 24, and Utah’s did the same four days later.

Similar legislation is under consideration in about a dozen other states.

The two Florida bills (HB 1 and SB 202) would create “education savings accounts” that all students in kindergarten-through-12th grade could access. The savings accounts likely would be funded like the current scholarships, paying about the same as the per-student cost for a typical public school student and more for those with disabilities.

The bills, with support from GOP leaders in both the House and Senate, are expected to move quickly through both chambers, where Republicans have a strong majority. Gov. Ron DeSantis also has been a supporter of the programs.

That thrills Bob Breske, an Apopka father who spoke in favor of scholarships at a recent Legislative committee meeting. His family uses a scholarship to help his youngest child, who has Down syndrome and attends Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando.

Breske said he paid for all four of his children to attend Catholic schools, and the scholarship for his youngest son does not cover Morning Star’s $30,000 bill. But it helps the family pay for extra tutoring and job training services to ready his son for life after high school.

Breske said he has paid public school taxes for years and “I’ve never used any of that.” So he sees no problem with some public money going to private school scholarships.

More than 2,000 private schools now participate in Florida’s voucher programs. Those include some long-established schools, such as Florida’s more than 240 Catholic schools, which combined educated more than 37,431 scholarship students last year, according to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Among the 2,000 are also many newer schools that opened solely to accept scholarship students. Well-established or brand-new, none of these schools need to meet public school standards for teacher credentials, academics or facilities, as state scholarship laws allow private schools to set their own rules.

A private school in west Orange, for example, hired a daycare worker — a woman without a college degree who’d been fired from her last job — as a fourth-grade teacher in 2020.

To accept state scholarships, private schools must meet only a few state rules related to building safety and employee background checks. Even schools that violate those rules are often allowed to remain in the programs.

Providence Christian Preparatory School, which hired the former daycare worker, faced four state inquiries but continues to take vouchers, with about 168 students using them this year, providing more than $573,000 to the school.

‘Literally no standards’

The state’s hands-off approach worries Stephanie Vanos, an Orlando mother of three and vice president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida.

Taxpayer money should not go to religious schools, unaccredited private schools that could have “literally no standards” and campuses “that lack transparency,” Vanos said. “That public money should go to public schools.”

Sally Butzin, past president of the League of Women Voters’ Tallahassee chapter, thinks the voucher expansion will undermine public schools, which roughly 87% of Florida’s students attend.

“It’s just a big transfer of public dollars to private entities with very little oversight and it’s very troubling,” said Butzin, who started her career as a teacher. “Public education is a public good. Even if you don’t have children in school, it benefits our society.”

Some private school operators, she said, are most concerned with making a profit. “These are a bunch of grifters. They are looking to make money off of this,” Butzin said.

Supporters of the expansion argue funding should follow students to private schools if that’s what their parents choose.

“We’re not trying to do away with public school in this bill. What we’re saying is that we want public schools to be an option for our parents,” said Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, sponsor of the Senate bill.

But private schools should be options as well, he said, and the scholarships can be a lifeline to help some children attend.

More than just a number

Jennifer Garcia, a single mother of two, said she always wanted to send her children to a private, Christian school but could not afford the tuition until she learned of the state scholarships last year.

She found Raising Knowledge Academy, set up in a shopping plaza in south Orange, during a Google search.

“I just didn’t want a big, public high school,” Garcia said, as she feared her ninth grader could get lost in the crowds, be bullied or skip classes without anyone noticing.

At Raising Knowledge, she said, He’s in school, doing his work. He’s safe,” she said.

“They’re not numbers,” she said. “Most public schools you’re just a number, you’re in the system.”

Alianys Calderon and 4th grade teacher Ana Milena Carranza read from a history book at the Raising Knowledge Academy, on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. 
Raising Knowledge Academy is a private school that accepts school vouchers.
(Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)
Alianys Calderon and 4th grade teacher Ana Milena Carranza read from a history book at the Raising Knowledge Academy, on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. Raising Knowledge Academy is a private school that accepts school vouchers. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)

Raising Knowledge enrolls about 125 students and all use state scholarships to pay tuition. Owner Ariam Cotto Rojas hopes to expand next year, using another suite in the shopping plaza.

“I believe in the public system, but some kids need a one-on-one, something extra,” Cotto said.

Raising Knowledge keeps classes to about 10 students each, using Christian curricula while also offering music and performing arts, she said.

It operates in a mostly windowless open space, with areas carved out for small classrooms without doors.

Cotto said knows she cannot compete with a public school campus. Raising Knowledge has no lunch room, for example, and the only place for children to play outside is a patch of grass between the back of a building, a parking lot and a chain link fence.

But the school still provides what some students need, she said. “The majority of kids, as soon as I enroll them, I keep them,” she said.

For some families, scholarships to private schools offer an escape from the high-stakes testing that is required in public schools, said Robin Jenkins, administrator of the Destined for Destiny Institute, a tiny Casselberry school where all 21 students use vouchers to pay tuition.

Her school administers the same standardized test as the public schools — an option open to private schools that take state vouchers — but her students do not face the same consequences of their public school counterparts, who can be held back in third grade or denied a high school diploma if they do not pass.

“The pressure is not here like it is in public school,” Jenkins said.

No specialized services required

Though some of Florida’s scholarships are earmarked for children with disabilities, private schools that accept them do not have to provide any specialized services.

Too many parents do not realize the legal protections that require public schools to provide individual education plans to children with disabilities do not apply to private schools, said Olivia Babis, a senior policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida, during a meeting on the House bill.

“We need to make sure school choice is [an] informed choice,” she said.

Schools also do not need to accept youngsters with disabilities — nor anyone who does not meet their admissions criteria.

Orlando Christian Prep in east Orlando has one of the largest enrollments of scholarship students in the region, with more than 500 of its students using state vouchers, bringing in more than $2 million.

The school’s admissions documents show students must take academic entrance exams, demonstrate they have not been expelled or faced other serious trouble in previous schools and show they can speak and write English fluently. The school only accepts students with disabilities who can manage in classes without accommodations.

The school’s principal did not respond to an email and phone message requesting comment.

For Bob Vaeth, the expansion is a great ideaHe hopes the state approves his new school, Florida East Coast Christian School, to take state scholarships.

Vaeth, a former daycare operator, in 2017 lost the right to take part in Florida’s preschool programs after the Early Learning Coalition of Flagler and Volusia found the center had left a child sleeping on a bus. The facility also had unsafe play equipment, a dirty bus and insufficient supervision, according to a Department of Children and Families inspection in 2017.

Vaeth said he thought the agency’s action was too harsh,and many parents signed a petition urging the state to reinstate the preschool. But Vaeth and his ex-wife, with whom he owned the center, closed the campus.

He also fought for years to win a contract to open a charter school, a privately operated and publicly funded campus, after the Volusia County School Board first rejected his application in 2014. District staff deemed the pitch deficient in 15 of 19 areas and said it included information plagiarized from other schools’ applications.

The State Board of Education and courts sided with Vaeth, however, ruling the charter school could open, so in 2021 the school board approved his proposed charter.

But by that time, Vaeth saw a new opportunity: Opening a private school instead and taking part in the state’s voucher programs, which would allow him to “become independent” of the school district, he said.

Charter schools are freed from some public school requirements but still must hire certified teachers, administer state tests and receive the state’s A-to-F grades. Private schools that take vouchers do not.

Already, Vaeth said he has interest from families who want to enroll and use state vouchers to pay tuition. He’s excited lawmakers may soon expand those efforts.

“They’re encouraging more school choice,” he said. “It’s wonderful for the families here, for the taxpayer, for the mom and dad who want to choose a school.”

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