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Guest Column
Florida won’t tell you what’s wrong at its voucher schools — unless we pay $10,413 | Column
Teachers and parents have filed hundreds of complaints about these schools that are currently subsidized with more than $2 billion in public money. Some of the complaints are eye-poppingly disturbing.
 
A student at Downey Christian School in east Orange County fills out a workbook in 2018. A parent filed a complaint against the school with the Florida Department of Education in 2021 when the school employed three teachers without college degrees. That is one of 238 complaint records the Orlando Sentinel has sought through a public records request.
A student at Downey Christian School in east Orange County fills out a workbook in 2018. A parent filed a complaint against the school with the Florida Department of Education in 2021 when the school employed three teachers without college degrees. That is one of 238 complaint records the Orlando Sentinel has sought through a public records request. [ KAYLA OBRIEN | TNS ]
Published April 27, 2023

One little-known fact about Florida’s wild, wild west of unregulated voucher schools is that some of the biggest critics about what happens inside these publicly subsidized schools are the teachers who work there and parents who came to regret sending their kids.

Teachers and parents have filed hundreds of complaints about these schools that are currently subsidized with more than $2 billion in public money.

Some of the complaints are eye-poppingly disturbing. Like:

“Cleaning lady substituting for teacher.”

“Children of all ages are running out of classrooms screaming and hitting each other.”

“They don’t provide lunch and they don’t even have a place to eat.”

“I don’t see any evidence of academics.”

And “vast scope of educational neglect.”

Scott Maxwell
Scott Maxwell [ Provided ]

Not exactly what parents expected. Nor what most taxpayers want to hear about how public money is being spent.

So how did Florida’s education department respond to these complaints?

Well, the state won’t provide the public records that answer that question — unless the Orlando Sentinel coughs up more than $10,000.

When Orlando Sentinel reporters requested records about complaints filed by parents and teachers about schools in the states voucher program, the state's Department of Education first didn't respond for three weeks — and then told the newspaper it would need to cough up more than $10,000 to see the public records.
When Orlando Sentinel reporters requested records about complaints filed by parents and teachers about schools in the states voucher program, the state's Department of Education first didn't respond for three weeks — and then told the newspaper it would need to cough up more than $10,000 to see the public records. [ TNS ]

That is ridiculous. This information should be posted on public websites for everyone to see. Especially parents considering sending their kids to these schools. Moms and Dads have a right to know if the state-approved voucher school they’re considering has a janitor doing double-duty as a math teacher.

Sadly, the Florida politicians who promote “school choice” don’t want parents and watchdogs to know what’s going on inside these schools. They demand accountability from public schools but let voucher schools run wild. They are truly, as the Sentinel has been documenting for years now, “Schools without Rules.”

Six years ago, when the Sentinel started peering inside the classrooms of the schools Florida has approved as recipients of state-funded vouchers (or “scholarships”), our reporters found a hot mess.

They found schools where teachers lacked credentials, some of whom had only a high school diploma or less. Also schools that employed teachers with criminal records, that falsified fire and health inspections and that refused to serve children with disabilities or gay parents. A few were such financial wrecks, they shut down in the middle of the school year.

Sentinel reporters discovered many of these problems using shoe-leather journalism. They visited schools that state officials had ignored. And they talked with parents.

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But some of the information also came from public records — from complaints parents had filed with the state.

In many cases, the state essentially shrugged in response, basically telling concerned parents they were free to try another school if they thought the first voucher-approved school had failed their kids. That is Florida’s version of choice accountability: Try again. There’s no concern for taxpayers who fund slipshod education or for the kids who fall behind during critical learning years.

Some voucher schools do great jobs. But obviously the picture wasn’t pretty all over. So recently, reporters Leslie Postal and Annie Martin decided to try again and asked for records surrounding another batch of voucher-school complaints — 238 of them, filed over the past 18 months.

Now the state isn’t so interested in us seeing them.

Our team paid about $8 per file back in 2017. But now that it’s clear those public records can reveal ugly truths, the state has asked us to pay a lot more for these public records — more than $43 per file, for a total of $10,413.70.

The Florida Department of Education claims it will take hundreds of hours of staff time to compile and involve “extensive clerical and supervisory assistance by the Department’s personnel.”

Let’s stop right here, because there are only two real conclusions one can draw from this response.

Either the state wants to make it prohibitively expensive for the public to know what’s going on inside these schools. Or this administration is simply too incompetent to do its job.

Because if Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP lawmakers really give a flip about empowering parental choice and rights, they’d make all of this information easily accessible for everyone.

If the Better Business Bureau can provide this information online with ease, so can America’s third-largest state.

Let’s be clear: The Orlando Sentinel will get these records.

The Sentinel’s executive editor, Julie Anderson, doesn’t back down from legal fights, especially when it comes to public records. (The Sentinel has twice sued the DeSantis administration for access to public records and prevailed both times, with the state having to pay our legal bills — a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars.)

The state has offered to give our journalists a portion of the records requested for a mere $2,900. But we want it all. And you deserve to see it all.

How are voucher schools, charter schools and traditional public schools different in Florida?
How are voucher schools, charter schools and traditional public schools different in Florida? [ TNS ]

An irony is that school choice proponents often point to past problems at public schools as a reason to redirect tax dollars to private schools — without acknowledging that the only reason people know about many of those problems is because media organizations like ours exposed them, often using public records to do so.

Through the years, Sentinel reporters have written about problems at public schools ranging from failing grades and fire-safety violations to teacher shortages and bus-pickup problems.

We care about accountability for all. Florida’s “choice” proponents don’t.

Unlike public schools, voucher schools in Florida aren’t required to disclose the curriculum they use, the qualifications their teachers have, their graduation rates ― the list goes on and on.

And now we’re learning that when parents who actually sent their kids to some of these schools were disappointed and disturbed by what they saw, the state doesn’t want you to know about it.

The Sentinel will continue to bird-dog this story, regardless of the hurdles erected by politicians and bureaucrats. Especially as Florida embarks upon the largest expansion of school vouchers in American history.

Why? Because we think taxpayers and parents deserve easy access to information that will tell them what’s happening inside all the schools they help fund — even when the politicians do not.

Contact Scott Maxwell at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com.

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.