In latest attack on private schools, Orlando Sentinel works ‘without rules’

Florida schools

School choice is again under attack, with private schools facing a renewed onslaught of well-worn, tired and inaccurate claims.

But the worst bias against Florida’s popular school scholarship programs runs throughout an new Orlando Sentinel series (“Schools Without Rules,” which debuted Wednesday) that seeks to relitigate the questionable case against well-proven private schools: weak oversight, underqualified staff, falsified records and more.

In reality, the Sentinel (and its reporters) appear to be the ones working “without rules.” A closer examination of the first entry in a three-part series reveals a disturbing pattern of cherry-picking facts, ignoring others and taking data out of context.

Few can deny the state’s scholarship programs are popular. Even the Sentinel admits: “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.”

Next, an interesting statistic: If students using the Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships were their own district, it would be Florida’s sixth-largest in student population, bigger than that of the Jacksonville area. And the 30,000 students in Central Florida make up one-quarter of all scholarship recipients — with $175.6 million and 390 private schools in the region.

But while the Sentinel series can be forgiven for raising legitimate problems with a handful of facilities — issues that certainly merit discussion — the series also blatantly ignores facts that do not support its confirmation bias against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and its member schools.

When looking at the full body of evidence, Florida’s scholarship program is far from broken, and is, in fact, very successful.

One example is a report released last month by the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute, which found students in a statewide private school choice program for four years or more are 40 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public-school peers.

While the Sentinel received an early version of the Urban Institute study and even interviewed the researcher — who urged reporters to include the findings in its series — the paper declined, ultimately downplaying the results by using a single statistic out of context.

Other research, this time by Northwestern University, proved that private schools actually have a positive effect on public schools, through a statistically significant improvement in student performance on state math and reading tests.

And while the Sentinel series discusses (in detail) the overall cost to administer the state’s scholarship programs, according to the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) the program saves taxpayers $39-million per year.

“The reason for the savings is that the students receive scholarships to private schools that cost less than the amount the state would spend on the student in a public school,” says a statement from Step Up for Students — the organization that administers the Gardiner and Tax Credit Scholarships. “The result, according to OPPAGA, is that for each $1 lost through corporate tax credits, the state saves $1.49 in general revenue.”

To further belabor its point, the Sentinel also distorted per-pupil spending for Florida public schools, comparing the tax credit scholarship values to public per-pupil operating costs alone. A review by Florida TaxWatch found that the per-pupil figure in Florida public schools was $10,308 last year; scholarship students receive less than 60 percent of the amount for their public-school counterparts.

Similarly listed as “proof,” the Sentinel cited Orlando-area TDR Academy — founded by a couple frustrated by the struggle of their son (who has learning disabilities) in public school — as an example of “poor choices” made by parents.

But a deeper look at the paper’s methodology reveals blatantly superficial assumptions and subjective hyperbole.

Reporters came to their conclusion on TDR through just two visits — less than two hours in all — completely disregarding the school’s record of learning gains for low-income and special needs students.

As Step Up’s Jon East and Ron Matus note: “The reporters never explained how they chose the 30 schools they would visit. But they did offer two obscure backhanded references — that ‘some private schools offer rigorous academics’ and that ‘Catholic schools are among some of the most well-regarded and long-established private schools that take Florida’s scholarships’ — by way of presumably acknowledging that they steered clear of any school they thought might be high-performing.”

Another interesting comparison: Over five years, state regulators removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denying participation to 18 applicants, with sanctions on many others — a stark contrast to public school districts, which rarely (if ever) shut down poorly performing schools.

Of course, no education sector has a perfect compliance record, and it is impossible to eliminate bad actors completely from any industry. Nevertheless, supporters of Florida’s educational scholarships as a whole are committed to providing the best for children, especially low-income and at-risk students, something the Sentinel series also chose to ignore.

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a Tampa Bay-area journalist, editor and writer. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including His broad range includes covering news, local government, entertainment reviews, marketing and an advice column. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in Tampa with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached on Twitter @PhilAmmann or at [email protected].


  • William Bronson

    October 19, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Please contact me re a new education voucher initiative. Thanks.

    • Byorn Hansen

      October 20, 2017 at 10:17 pm

      You make a good case here. But how can you defend the fact that there are virtually no academic requirements for these private schools beyond the administration of a single test? And that many of these schools teach creationism as science and downplay the reality of evolution? How can that be defended?

Comments are closed.


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