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Episode 7: Vouchers for All: Buyer Beware

Florida parents are being inundated with marketing calls, flyers, and advertisements that promote new schools opening in their communities.

Private schools that accept taxpayer funded vouchers are popping up all across the state in strip malls, rundown office buildings, vacant car dealerships, abandoned factories, and church basements. Most are in small religious schools with no affiliation to an established church or denomination. They have limited state oversight. Many of these pop-up voucher schools don’t even meet basic academic standards. Numerous studies have shown the students perform no better in reading or math than their public school peers. In Part 2 of Vouchers for All: Buyer Beware, you’ll hear why some parents regret pulling their child out of public schools for a chance to grab a private school voucher.

Guests

  • Angel Pittman, education advocate
  • Rebecca Forbes-Levy, parent in Miami-Dade County

Resources

Transcript

[00:00] Announcer: Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to “Educating from the Heart.” Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

[00:27] Tina Dunbar: Hello everyone. And welcome back to the second part of our series “Vouchers for All.” Well, Luke, wouldn’t you agree that far too many parents believe accepting a private school voucher will automatically lead to the best educational opportunity for their child, at least better than in public schools?

[00:47] Luke Flynt: Tina, I think you’re right. There are many parents who think that because these voucher schools are supported by the state, they’re also regulated by the state, but the numbers are truly staggering.

If we look at Dade County alone, there were 713 private schools: only 113 of them are accredited. That means there were 600 private schools, again, this is just in one county, that have no oversight from the state, from any agency or any regulatory body. It’s no wonder that the majority of students who use private school vouchers flee their voucher school within two years. As we’ll talk about with our guests today, a lot of damage can be done to students during their short stints in Florida’s voucher failure factories.

[01:40] Tina: That’s because we’re talking about schools that aren’t accredited. The students are taught by adults who aren’t even certified to teach, and the curriculum could be considered substandard. I’ve actually heard that from parents outraged that private schools don’t have to follow the same high standards as public schools.

Also, in this episode, we’re going to explore those government-dependent taxpayer-funded private schools, the same pop-up voucher schools that we mentioned in our last episode.

[02:12] Luke: It’s heartbreaking. We sit down with a parent, Rebecca Forbes-Levy, who used a voucher to send her son to a private school in Miami, only to find out the school couldn’t offer a high school diploma. They were ushering students into a GED program while receiving boatloads of taxpayer funded vouchers.

[02:32] Tina: It’s really sad, Luke, because the problem isn’t just limited to Miami. Angel Pittman, who advocates for students with disabilities, will also share with us the harm she has seen across the state to students enrolled in private voucher schools.

Rebecca kicks us off telling the story of how an unscrupulous voucher school betrayed her and her son in high school.

[02:58] Rebecca Forbes-Levy, mother: I actually knew the owner of the original school in the city of Miami. So, I’m thinking, okay. They open up a campus near my house, so I’m going to let my son go to that school.

So, off he went to that school. And it was time for him to graduate, and I’m like, “Okay when is graduation?” And then I realized that a lot of students were dropping out of the school. So, I’m very involved and I’m going to school every day. And I’m meeting with the now owner of the school, and I’m asking questions.

So she’s like, okay, “In order for him to graduate he had to go to Miami-Dade College.” I’m like, “I don’t understand.” So, that’s where my problem started.

[03:36] Tina: Wait, I want to make sure I’m following you. You’re saying a woman formerly employed at a local private school in Miami left the school to open her own school under a similar name.

[03:50] Rebecca: Exactly. And the school that she opened, it was the same exact name. I think it was one letter off. So, I’m thinking she said, “Oh, this is a campus.” And, you know, she showed me that she had worked at that school and that was a new campus. And so I’m thinking it’s okay. But then I discovered it wasn’t.

So, I started doing research, and I went to school that I thought they were affiliated with, thinking that that was the campus. And that’s when I was told by the owner that no, this lady worked for us about two years prior to her opening up that branch. And we’re not affiliated. We didn’t even know, quote, unquote, that she’d opened up a school.

They had no affiliation. And then I found out it wasn’t accredited and there’s no way my son can graduate from school. Because really he wasn’t going to any school. He had gone there for almost two years, and there’s no way he could have graduated from school. Realizing that my son was not even in enrolled in a quote unquote “school.” It was a business, so to speak. The reason why most of the kids were leaving, because I questioned that, and some of the faculty is because they realize when these kids get to, you know, where they have to graduate, she had no graduation in place. You know what she’s saying, “Oh, well he has to go to Miami Dade,” and I’m like, “I didn’t understand that going to Miami-Dade College”

But what I found out later is that what she was trying to do with my son was let him take his GED at Miami-Dade College. And I’m like “No, this is supposed to be a school.” And I honestly, I had no clue, because I was under the impression that if it was a private school, then they were all accredited in the state of Florida. That was a shock to me.

[05:40] Tina: I’d say you’re not alone. I’m sure many other people believe the same. I’m a parent, and I know I would have been devastated by the experience. I mean, you followed all the same basic steps I would have. You visited the school, answered questions, researched what you believed to be a school affiliated with a good school, more established in your community and still your son lost several years, precious academic years. I can’t imagine what you said to your son, or how you felt after discovering the school was a sham.

[06:16] Rebecca: So, I was like lost, devastated, not knowing what to do. And the only thing, the only words that came out of my mouth were, “God help me.”

And [my son] would look at me, and I would say, “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what to say.” I felt like I let him down because, I mean, my degree is in administration. I do research all day, every day. I researched this schooling, and what’s so ironic is that the owner of the school in downtown, my sister’s mother-in-law knows him personally.

You know, I’ve never met him before, but when I described who I was, and he’s like, “I can’t believe she did that.” And he did not even know what to say to me. I felt like I had let my son down. Like, I’m like, “What do I do now?” I mean, what am I going to do? It’s time for him to graduate and what do I tell him?

And at this point he’s 18, you know, and I’m thinking, okay, “I have to work as hard as I can to get him into a school.” Thank God he had gone to public school all those years, and he still had his record, but he basically had to do two extra years in public school in order to graduate.

[07:27] Luke: Wow. And you sound like you were a very involved parent.

[07:32] Rebecca: Right.

[07:32] Luke: And so, I’m imagining your son’s classmates whose parents, through no fault of their own, might not have the time that you had to dedicate. And just what just wound up with nothing. No high school graduation.

[07:50] Rebecca: It was about 30 children, and I wonder about them to this day. But at that point I had to work with my son, and I had to make him understand that we can do this.

I mean, I stayed up for weeks and weeks and weeks, and he’d go to school and he’d work and he’d work and he’d work. And I mean, just trying to encourage him, you know, not to give up, and thank God he didn’t. But I had to leave my career in order to help my son because he’s my only child, and I couldn’t let him be a high school dropout

[08:18] Tina: Angel, as an education advocate, you specifically work to support special needs students. And they are some of our youngest and most vulnerable learners. Yet, they’re the students who were most prioritized by these voucher programs. Have you heard similar stories?

[08:35] Angel Pittman, education advocate: I think what Rebecca is sharing about her son is incredibly heartbreaking and yes, I have heard similar stories. In fact, one of the things that is most heartbreaking for me in stories that I hear are parents do not realize that they’re being sold a farse, a false marketing promise from the schools. And particularly with students who are receiving special education services in the state of Florida, they don’t realize the rights they’re giving up. And so just a little background, we have a law that was passed in 1975 in the US IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

And that law requires that students with special needs receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, and that their rights are protected. What parents are finding, like my friend, Lisa, who took a Step Up for Students Scholarship for her daughter who has Down Syndrome, they wanted to attend a school in Opa-locka, Florida that promised, probably very similar to [Rebecca’s story], promised a lot of things that they would do, that their daughter would be in an inclusive classroom and that she would have, you know, all of these services provided. But just six weeks into school, her daughter was moved to a self-contained classroom of all exceptional learners, not in the least restrictive environment, not even on the main campus of the school. And when the parents found this out, they went to the school and they said, “This is not what you’ve promised us.” And their response was simply, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can withdraw your child.”

Well, then their shock turned to horror when they discovered that their child’s teacher was a 20 year-old with not even an Associate’s degree, who is now in charge of a classroom of 20 plus special learners. This was…

[10:59]Tina: Wow.

[10:59] Angel: …not the environment that they had been promised, and in a public school that would have never …

[11:06] Tina: Never, yes.

[11:07] Angel: And so that family not only had to uproot their daughter from the school, she lost critical learning, socialization, all of those things. And they were so disgusted with their treatment they left the state at the end of July, and they said, “You know what? Florida is not educating students like they say they are.”

[11:33] Tina: So, you both have given us examples of the unintended consequences associated with the state voucher programs. And I say it’s a safe assumption that most parents would believe all private and religious schools that accept the taxpayer-funded vouchers are accredited and have certified teachers. Public schools follow this policy, shouldn’t private schools? Especially those getting the money! So, is it a bit disingenuous when lawmakers prop up parents with their school choice narrative about parents always know what’s best for their child. Do they?

[12:09 ] Rebecca: To a certain degree parents know what’s best for their kids. The thing is there are a lot of parents that have no clue. They think, and I hate to say this because I’m not generalizing, it happened to me. They believe that they know. They may know what their child’s needs are as a parent, but when it comes to school, many parents have no clue. The schools are going to offer you all kinds of whatever.

I mean, I went to the school, I saw this, I saw that not knowing that that was a setup because when I went back into the school where his class was, now, his class was on the other side of the church. And I’m like, “Wait a minute.” They promise you a lot. So, to say that the parents know, they know what’s best for their children, but when it comes to the school, they have no [idea].

You ask the average parent, “If you take your child and put them in this private school, what’s going to happen? Are the schools going to be held accountable? How often do you go and visit? How often can you go and visit? How often do they talk with you? Are you sure?” And they probably will take a step back and go, “Well, they told me this.” “No, but did you verify it?” So, to say that a lot of parents are ignorant to what’s going on in the private schools, although they may know what’s best for their child, but when it comes to education, they don’t have a clue.

[13:31] Angel: Rebecca is exactly right. As parents, we know that our child may really enjoy one subject more than another. But do we know what kind of learner they are? Are they a kinesthetic learner? There’s so much detail that a teacher, that’s why teachers go through four years of schooling. That’s why there’s so much practicum because it is a skill and a knowledge base that you learn so that you can meet your children’s needs.

And so, I know from both the side of a parent, as well as a former educator that you’ve got a lot of things at play. You’ve got the false advertising of the school, like we’ve mentioned, promising things that they do not deliver on. You’ve also got parents who it’s not their job. If they wanted to educate their children, they would homeschool their children. And I’ve done that as well, but we rely on professionals to do the things that we ourselves either don’t have the time or the skills to do. And that’s what we expect. We expect a professional police force. We expect a professional fire department. We don’t expect them to go, “Oh, well, we don’t know how to do that.”

And parents go to schools and believe, especially if they’re getting money from a state-run program, they expect that they’re going to get a professional teacher. And the fact is, with these scholarships, they are not guaranteed that at all.

[15:17] Luke: It’s really an important distinction. I think that you both have made that yes, parents know what their child needs, but they don’t necessarily know what the school provides, right? And, and the schools will promise the moon and not deliver. And when we look at public schools, you know, parents know how students have done on the tests, right. If your child is not highly qualified in a public school, you get a letter, right. It is posted on the public school’s website.

[15:49] Tina: Yes, plenty of checks and balances. Yes. Yes.

[15:52] Luke: So, I’m curious. You know, I don’t know that it necessarily makes sense to just copy the public-school accountability system, because it’s flawed to just copy that and apply it to private schools, but certainly private schools need more regulations.

And I’m curious, what specifically, you know, from your perspective, parents need the state to hold private schools, accountable for?

[16:18] Angel: Private schools can charge whatever they want, right. And so parents often don’t know the final number of what they’re going to get. The state does not require that there’s even transparency.

So, I have a parent that I worked with in Homestead and, again, she, like we’ve been saying, believed that private schools were better. And so she signed her kids up, did all these things, and didn’t realize that they were charging her for transportation. And she ended up with a $2,000 bill. And the school would not release the transcripts so the children could go attend another school.

It wasn’t until I intervened [that they were able to leave the school]. So, if we started with the basic accountability of how much is this going to cost me out of pocket, then we’ve got to worry about, well, show me on paper who’s accredited and you know, who’s licensed to teach, then how are your students performing? But the very basics that parents need to know is what is this going to cost me? Because this is not a free education like we’re getting at the public school.

[17:38] Tina: The Florida legislature has advanced a massive consolidation and expansion of the state voucher program that will make them available to a lot more families. But some of those eligible families of four could earn as much as a hundred thousand dollars.

Now, the voucher program originally began for students with disabilities and those underperforming students living in poverty, has the state lost its way or is this a dream finally realized?

[18:12] Angel: I think what we’re seeing is the culmination of a decades long plan. This was part of the plan from, you know, back in Jeb [Bush’s governorship.] First, we grade the schools, and what we’re really grading is poverty and affluence.

Next, we start dumping all these tests. Then we tie teachers’ accountability to test scores, and you just follow it all the way down, but we create so much disruption, so much fear and anxiety. “Oh, our education system in Florida is failing.” Here’s the solution.

[18:59] Tina: And what is that solution? Parents need guidance in navigating these unregulated and unaccountable schools, especially if they’re accepting public dollars in the form of vouchers. What’s your advice? Where do parents start?

[19:14] Angel: I would point folks to [a stunning report] the League of Women Voters in Florida just released. I believed when I first started this journey, that Step Up was a program of the state of Florida. And then I found out, no, they’re a business. I love this quote that they put in [the report] that Step Up President Doug at Hill was quoted in 2011 in a YouTube video that since has been taken down, and he says, “One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful is we spend $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money. And house races and Senate races were probably the biggest spender in those races.”

And so, yes, this is, this is how it happens. It’s just a circle of spending. So, an expansion of this will just mean that we’re lining more legislators’ pockets with money. And if we move to this debit card that Manny Diaz is talking about where parents can shop well, where are they shopping? Who are these vendors? Where is it? How is this connected? And it doesn’t take very long to see the connections between our legislators and these money-making businesses.

[20:44] Tina: Luke, I have one more story from Angel that I believe really cements her point. She told me about a young man who attended a small pop-up church school in Florida. Upon graduation he decided to join the military, but his degree was not acceptable, and he wasn’t able to pass the armed forces’ basic aptitude test. You know, since the state spends around a billion dollars on these voucher schools annually, wouldn’t you agree

legislators owe it to taxpayers to provide much greater transparency? No parent would knowingly send their child to an unaccountable, unregulated private voucher school that can’t even offer a decent high school education and an authentic diploma. But Florida’s hands-off approach at these schools means there’s no repercussions for the lack of education they provide for our students.

It really is good to know that the well-established schools with a very long history and academic track record absolutely refuse these vouchers because they recognize quality education is worth a lot more than a state-funded voucher.

[21:55] Luke: Absolutely. But you know, with legislators and Governor DeSantis celebrating their most recent expansion of vouchers, more and more students are going to find themselves in the position that Rebecca and her son were in.

They have been sold a bill of goods, and some people might not realize until it’s too late that just because the state gives you a voucher to attend a private school does not mean that that school is actually offering an education.

[22:25] Tina: Well, that’s it for our show. We appreciate your comments and feedback. Keep sending your emails to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s H E A R T at Florida EA dot O R G. Or leave a voicemail for us at 850-201-3384. That’s 850-201-3384. Also, if you enjoy listening to our podcast, please give us a rating and review, and don’t forget to ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe. Until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.

[23:09] Primrose Cameron, FEA Professional Development: Greetings. My name is Dr. Primrose, Cameron and I am FEA’s Director for Professional Development and Educational Research. Please contact us for your professional development needs and the areas of race and equity, self-care grief and loss, social-emotional learning, and many certification courses that are needed and required for our members across the state. Primrose.Cameron@floridaea.org.

[23:39] Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit feaweb.org/podcast.

[23:53] Sharon: “Educating from the Heart” is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education, staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.

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