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Florida investigation: Private schools pull in $1 billion in public funds with little oversight

In a story that’s sure to only galvanize critics of North Carolina’s fast-expanding private school voucher program, a recent and extensive Orlando Sentinel investigation takes on Florida’s oversight of its own private school scholarship system.

According to that report, Florida private schools are pulling in roughly $1 billion in taxpayer-funded scholarships with lax oversight from the state.

From the 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.”

Private schools, which operate free of many of the curriculum and certification requirements imposed on public schools, are at the heart of a growing school choice movement that has the ear of many leaders in states across the country, as well as President Donald Trump’s administration.

In North Carolina, state budget writers in the N.C. General Assembly are planning a rapid expansion of state spending of their own Opportunity Scholarship Program—which dispenses public dollars for low-income children to attend private schools. The state’s annual investment is scheduled to increase from more than $44 million this year to more than $144 million in 2027.

Yet state and national research suggests voucher programs have spurred middling academic results for students.

Indeed, a Duke University report this year slammed North Carolina’s program for a lack of oversight and results. Duke researchers later had to amend one of their findings, although one of its authors said their criticisms of state oversight remain.

Fair comparisons of voucher recipients and  public school students are difficult to come by in North Carolina, where state law allows private school leaders to choose from multiple standardized tests.

For more on the Orlando Sentinel investigation, check out part 2 and part 3 of the series.

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