In early December, school choice advocates in Florida were busy preparing for another legislative session focused on passing accountability legislation for the state’s scholarship programs.
A group consisting of the Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations (FLA-SFO), the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, and several private school organizations has lobbied the legislature for a scholarship accountability bill for the past two sessions. Both efforts died in the final days.
Hostility from the media and legislators opposing school choice has made the push for accountability both difficult and necessary, school choice advocates say.
Accountability Legislation Needed
Two of Florida’s three scholarship programs–Opportunity Scholarships for students in failing public schools and McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities–are administered by the state Department of Education. The third, the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is administered by private, nonprofit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs), which are required to spend 100 percent of their tax-credited donations on scholarships for low-income students. Not a penny can be used for administrative costs, forcing the SFOs to raise their administrative funds independently.
Three SFOs formed under the 2001 Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship law have been dissolved for various infractions, including one that failed to award any scholarships. That operator was later convicted of fraud and was scheduled to be sentenced in early January. The other dissolved SFOs mismanaged funds or were unable to finance their operations.
To avoid such problems in the future, four SFOs formed the FLA-SFO, which promotes best practices and strict adherence to the law. The FLA-SFO’s members now administer 98 percent of the state’s corporate tax credit scholarships.
“Forming the association is giving taxpayers confidence that the program can operate under strong accountability practices,” FLA-SFO Chairman Heather Moore said.
The FLA-SFO has strict guidelines for membership, including background checks for SFO operators and annual audits by independent certified public accountants.
“Codifying the standards we already adhere to will ensure that every SFO protects the integrity of the program and offers real benefits to low-income students,” Moore explained.
Unfair Standards Proposed
During the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions, the Florida House and Senate each took up accountability bills.
In each of the Senate’s bills, legislators included provisions that were stricter than public school regulations, including some requiring teacher credentialing more stringent than what public schools are subjected to, and allowing for random site visits by the auditor general.
FLA-SFO spokeswoman Denise Lasher said those legislative measures are unnecessary because the coalition is policing itself.
“Our coalition is working toward accountability that makes the program stronger, without being so restrictive it prohibits good private schools from participating,” Lasher explained.
Among the coalition’s accountability recommendations are required standardized testing for tax credit scholarship recipients and teacher qualification requirements that allow for formal education or special knowledge of the subject.
To date, the Florida House and Senate have been unable to agree upon accountability legislation. “Unfortunately, politics have gotten in the way,” Lasher said. “These bills have become political pawns.”
Accountability Standards Differ
In Florida, where many legislators and much of the media oppose school choice, passing accountability legislation that is not overly restrictive is difficult, said John Kirtley, vice chairman of the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice.
“Florida and the Milwaukee choice program face unique challenges to school choice programs that don’t exist in other states,” Kirtley said. “The political and press climate here is not friendly to choice. Accountability is crucial to the survival of these programs.”
In Pennsylvania, for example, the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program’s current accountability legislation is limited to requiring each scholarship organization to have an independent certified public accountant verify that 80 percent of collected funds are distributed as scholarships, according to Andrew LeFevre, executive director of the REACH (Road to Educational Achievement Through Choice) Alliance, a grassroots coalition dedicated to ensuring parental choice in education in the state.
Accountability Improves Quality
Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin (SCW), another advocacy group, described a very different climate. With the help of legislative allies, SCW lobbied for and won the passage of accountability legislation in 2004 after three years of court battles.
“Legislators who opposed the program and supported heavier regulation said their goal was to impede participation or send the program back to the court,” Mitchell said. “Bill sponsors couldn’t say why their bill would improve the program; they just said, ‘Public schools have to do this, so private schools should, too.'”
Since Wisconsin passed its accountability legislation, dozens of schools have been prevented from entering Milwaukee’s 15-year-old citywide school voucher program based on fiscal ineligibility, which Mitchell says is often a proxy for poor academic performance.
“We hope that it continues to be an effective tool that weeds out schools that aren’t ready for prime time but doesn’t pose an unnecessary burden for other schools in the program,” Mitchell said.
Lasher agreed. “Many private schools are willing to be accountable for their performance in educating scholarship recipients,” she said. “The challenge will be in moving the debate away from politics and back to education and the students, where it belongs.”
Jenny Rothenberg([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.