Voucher accountability

Lawmakers should find a way to measure performance before handing out vouchers to schools

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 9:46 p.m.

On Thursday, a man in Ocala was arrested and charged with fraudulently bilking the state out of more than $200,000 in private school voucher funds. Anyone who has been paying attention to what's been going on at the Department of Education knows that the Ocala scam was just the tip of the iceberg: Florida's voucher program is a mess.

One might reasonably wonder how DOE Sec. Jim Horne, who was a certified public accountant before he found fame and fortune in politics, could have allowed the state's voucher program to fall so deeply into such disrepute. Trying to put the most positive spin possible on that question, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said this week, "a lot of it is our (the Legislature's) fault. I'm not sure that anybody could have stepped into the situation we put together."

That's a good point. Essentially what happened is that Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature embraced vouchers as a leap of faith. They simply had faith that private schools are better than public schools, and they had faith that if the state provided vouchers, the private education sector would take kids who have been failed by public education and turn them into successes.

The embarrassment over the voucher mess guarantees that the Legislature will at the very least tighten fiscal controls to help ensure that state voucher dollars are spent properly. Assurances to that effect are coming out of the House, Senate and the governor's office.

But if lawmakers simply institute better bookkeeping practices and let it go at that, they will have done little to instill public confidence in the whole notion of taking money out of the public schools and throwing it at the private sector.

The bigger dilemma remains: How can the state demand that public schools show improvements in their test scores as a condition of receiving adequate funding, and yet throw money at private schools without requiring them to demonstrate that their students are learning anything at all?

Again, the leap-of-faith assumption that private schools are simply superior won't do. And to his credit, President King wants the Senate to impose some sort of testing requirement on private schools as a condition of receiving voucher dollars.

If testing is good for public school students, King reasons, it ought to be good for everybody.

We hope the Senate makes accountability for the quality of private education being paid for by voucher funds a major priority this coming session. The problem is that neither Gov. Bush nor House Speaker Johnnie Byrd seem to want to upset the private school industry by imposing a testing requirement. Byrd thinks doing so would prevent many private schools from even accepting voucher students.

But if that's the case, then good riddance.

"I think if the state is giving money, it needs to be based on performance," King argues. "Private schools don't like to be tested, but we've got to have some way to prove that what's happening is more than the fact that kids just enjoy going to them."

The Senate should insist that any voucher "reform" package include a way to measure performance and quality. It is hypocritical, and wasteful of taxpayer dollars, to punish public schools for failing to "make the grade" while lavishing cash on private schools that are not required to post any grades at all.

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