Once again the Florida Legislature is poised to end its annual session by reinforcing the same double standard: Accountability in education is paramount for public schools, but not for private enterprises that receive public dollars to educate students. Lawmakers twice in the past week have voted to lessen accountability for private-run charter schools and sidestep calls for more accountability for private schools that accept tuition vouchers. Students would be better served if lawmakers spent more time improving public schools and less time catering to privately run institutions.
So much for local control. The Republican-led House on Tuesday approved a bill, HB 7083, that would standardize charter school contracts, eliminating the already limited discretion local school boards have in negotiating contracts with charter schools. Supporters argued school districts view charters as competitors and should not have such discretion. But they failed to make the case that removing discretion will lead to more successful charter schools. There is, in fact, more evidence that school districts already lack the leverage and authority needed to shut down poor charters faster.
Meanwhile the expansion of vouchers, a pet project for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, received a reprieve with the Senate Appropriations Committee dubiously agreed to amend a stripped-down version of the plan to a bill, SB 1512, that deals with disabled students. Gone are Weatherford's broad plans for accelerating the number of low-income students who can qualify for the so-called "Corporate Income Tax Scholarship" to assist with attending a private school.
But the program would get a new mechanism for expanding donors' contributions, who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for giving. Students would no longer have to first try a public school before qualifying for a voucher, and foster children would also be eligible for a voucher. The program would also see a 2 percent increase in the value of each voucher.
Also significant in a year when Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pledged otherwise: The voucher program would still face far less stringent accountability standards than public schools. Voucher recipients must take a norm-referenced test — though not the FCAT — but there are no financial repercussions when students fail to make sufficient learning gains. Nor is there adequate disclosure of those test results for most schools enrolled in the program, making it impossible for the public to evaluate a school's performance.
Lawmakers, bound by the state Constitution to provide a uniform and high quality public school system, should have addressed these hypocrisies this year. Instead they are moving toward reinforcing unequal treatment. The status quo is better than the alternatives.