School choice programs are vital to Florida
Published: Monday, January 5, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 5, 2004 at 1:17 a.m.
Four years ago, the governor and Florida Legislature took bold steps to improve education by increasing standards and offering educational alternatives for children trapped in failing schools.
As the state's education commissioner at that time, I fully supported these new initiatives and helped implement them. I continue to strongly support these public policy changes and believe the results speak for themselves - we've seen the number of "A" schools grow five-fold and witnessed a 10 percent increase in the number of fourth-graders reading on grade level.
Since that time, state lawmakers have approved other innovative educational programs, including the McKay Scholarship program, which gives disabled students the option to attend private schools, and the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides tax credits to businesses that fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
These vital programs now serve an estimated 24,000 children in Florida, with the option to serve thousands more. I say "vital" because these programs empower parents to pursue high-quality educational opportunities that were, at one time, not available to their children.
In January of this year, I was sworn in as the state's Chief Financial Officer. With this position comes the responsibility for keeping track of a $53 billion state budget and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are accounted for and spent wisely.
Audits are one method for ensuring good stewardship of public dollars. Thousands of audits have been conducted by our office over the last year, including audits of Florida's school choice programs.
Two reports on the audits of school choice programs were released last week and offer solid recommendations to both the Department of Education and state lawmakers that will help enhance the fiscal integrity and strengthen the management of the programs. In fact, many of the recommended changes are already under way at the Department of Education.
Much has been written in the last week that calls Florida's school choice programs into question.
Let me be clear. Oversight of these programs, not the programs themselves, is what our audit found to be lacking. And the lack of oversight has put the success of our state's school choice programs at risk.
I firmly believe that just as we hold Florida's students to high standards, we must also hold government to the same standards.
With proper safeguards, accountability measures and strong oversight in place, these programs will operate effectively and continue to offer thousands of children the educational opportunities they so richly deserve.
Tom Gallagher is chief financial officer of the state of Florida.
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