Gov. Rick Scott campaigned two years ago as an outsider who would bring a fresh perspective to Tallahassee. He did that this week when it came to private school vouchers, acknowledging the need for Florida to shed its hypocrisy on education accountability. Scott's plan to have voucher students take the same tests as public school students starting in 2014 is long overdue and in taxpayers' interest, no matter how much legislative leaders may defend the current system.
For more than a decade, proponents of private school vouchers have had it both ways. They claimed the private sector offered a valuable alternative to public education for low-income students that warranted taxpayer investment, but they balked when asked to prove those private schools did at least as good a job as the public schools.
This occurred even as the Legislature escalated its accountability system for public schools using students' performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to inform a host of evaluations it wasn't designed for — from school grades to teacher performance and, starting in 2014-15, teachers' salaries.
Yet private schools that accepted students on the so-called Corporate Income Tax Credit scholarships didn't have to take the FCAT. Eventually, they were forced to administer some form of national standardized tests, but their results faced far less scrutiny than those of public schools. The voucher program, created in 2001, is funded by businesses that receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for any contributions. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can apply for the vouchers, worth up to $4,335.
But Thursday in Tampa, Scott said he plans to insist, when the state moves from an FCAT-based accountability system to the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2014, that private schools accepting voucher students be required to submit to the same battery of tests as public school students. Common Core is a national movement, now embraced by 48 states, that aims to clearly define educational standards subject-by-subject and assess whether students are meeting them.
House Speaker Will Weatherford told the Times he is open to the discussion, but he didn't see anything wrong with the way things are. Nor did several private school operators. That's fine. If private schools don't want to test their students as the state requires, they won't need to — as long as they don't expect a taxpayer-financed voucher system to provide them revenue. Voucher proponents can't have it both ways. They can't claim they are a good bargain for taxpayers but then be unwilling to prove it.