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The Orlando Sentinel has been covering scandal after scandal in the voucher schools of Florida, but the Legislature doesn’t care about their scandals and is planning to take even more money from public schools to fund more private voucher schools. The Sentinel published a story about one troubled voucher school that has received over $5 million from the state since 2015 despite the fact that it hires teachers without college degrees.
Leslie Postal and Annie Martin wrote about Winners Primary School in Orange County, which recently changed its name to Providence Christian Preparatory School:
The job applicant hoped to teach fourth grade at Winners Primary School, a small private school in west Orange County. She didn’t have a college degree and her last job was at a child care center, which fired her.
“Terminated would not rehire,” read the reference check form from the daycare.
Since 2018, the school, dependent on state scholarships for most of its income, has hired at least three other teachers with red flags in their employment backgrounds and at least 10 other instructors who lacked college degrees, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.
One Winners teacher — whose only academic credential was his high school diploma — was arrested in November, accused of soliciting sexually explicit videos from a boy in his class. Others have criminal backgrounds or histories of being fired for incompetence in other jobs, the records show. Despite that, the Florida Department of Education recently opened and closed an investigation into the school without taking any action.
The school is constantly hiring because many teachers work there only briefly. With about a dozen teachers on staff, Winners had a teacher turnover rate of 83% between 2019 and 2020. The turnover and the questionable teaching credentials raise doubts about the quality of education offered to the school’s 250 students in pre-K through eighth grade.
“The kids should’ve been in public schools,” said Evan McKelvey, who taught math at Winners for six months, leaving in January after getting hired at Bishop Moore Catholic High School. “All of the public schools around here are leagues better than that place.”
Almost all the students attend because Florida’s scholarships, often called school vouchers, cover their tuition. Since 2015, Winners, a for-profit school run by a married couple with a history of financial problems, has received more than $5.1 million in state scholarship money.
The school’s students use the state scholarships — Family Empowerment and Florida Tax Credit — that aim to help children from low-income families attend private schools...
Typically, the nearly 2,000 private schools that take state scholarships do not need to make public information on their operations or their employees. Despite state support, taxpayers have no right to see who is hired or what is taught at these schools.
Because of the teacher’s arrest at Winners, however, the department opened an investigation, telling the principal it was worried the school could be in violation of state scholarship laws because “proper vetting during the hiring process is not occurring,” according to a letter sent to the school Nov. 19.
“When we’re made aware of situations like this, our team thoroughly investigates,” said Eric Hall, senior chancellor at the education department, when asked about Winners at a January meeting of the Florida Senate’s education committee. ”We take these things very seriously. We would make sure that we hold those institutions or those individuals accountable.”
Less than two months later, however, the department closed its investigation without taking any action against the school, despite a file depicting a shoddy employee vetting process and a history of questionable teacher hires. The school faced similar state inquiries in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and was cleared to remain a scholarship school then, too.
That is because the Republican-led Legislature has written the scholarship program laws to give the state only limited power to oversee participating private schools. As the Sentinel reported in its 2017 “Schools Without Rules” series, some of the schools have hired teachers with criminal backgrounds, been evicted, set up in rundown facilities and falsified fire and health reports but still remained in the voucher programs.
This year, the Florida Senate is considering a bill to expand the scholarship programs that already serve more than 181,000 students and cost nearly $1 billion, so that more children could use them and more state money would be spent.
The Legislature also has turned down requests to stiffen the rules that govern participating private schools. In 2018, for example, a proposal to require private schools’ teachers to have bachelor’s degrees — as the state demands of its public school teachers — was rejected. Advocates say the scholarships, some of which go to children with disabilities, give parents options outside public schools, and if parents aren’t happy with the private school they pick, they can move their child to another campus...
The education department investigated the school previously after a complaint from a parent who wrote the state to say the campus was dirty and “children of all ages are running out of the classroom screaming and hitting each other,” as well as after a report from the Florida Department of Children and Families that a teacher had hurt a student and the Sentinel’s report in 2018 that the school had hired a felon as a teacher.
A custodian at the school served time in prison for a firearms violation.
The story goes on with more details about the checkered past and present of a “school without rules” and a legislature that happily hands out millions to anyone who asks for them, all in the name of “school choice.” Even bad choices are fine in Florida.
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