School Choice Showdown in Florida

Major Newspaper and Ed Reform Group Spar over Private School Results

Schools Without Rules: An Orlando Sentinel Investigation

By Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab and Annie Martin
Orlando Sentinel

Private schools in Florida will collect nearly $1 billion in state-backed scholarships this year through a system so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records.

The limited oversight of Florida’s scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.

Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.

Despite the problems, the number of children using Florida’s scholarship programs has more than tripled in the past decade to 140,000 students this year at nearly 2,000 private schools. If students using Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships made up their own school district, they would be Florida’s sixth-largest in student population, just ahead of the Jacksonville area.

“The scholarships are good. The problem is the school,” said Edda Melendez, an Osceola County mother. “They need to start regulating the private schools.”

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Orlando Sentinel Unfairly Targets School Serving Low-Income, Hispanic Students

By Ron Matus
Ron Matus

One of the schools singled out by the Orlando Sentinel’s investigation of private school scholarship programs was founded by a couple who grew frustrated when their son, burdened with severe medical issues since birth, continued to struggle in public school.

Five years later, its standardized test scores show students tested in each of the last two years are, on average, making double-digit academic gains.

The Sentinel didn’t mention this in its description of TDR Learning Academy, a K-12 school in Orlando that enrolls about 90 students who use tax credit scholarships for low-income students, McKay scholarships for students with disabilities, and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Instead, in both its story and accompanying video, it portrayed the predominantly Hispanic school as a poster child for a regulatory accountability system it suggests is far too lax.

“These schools operate without state rules when it comes to teacher credentials, academics and facilities,” says the narrator in the Sentinel’s video. “TRD Academy in Orlando is one of them.”

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