There are reports coming in that Florida’s voucher advocates are scrambling to counter a stunning expose by well-respected educator Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg which lays out the many pitfalls that exist for students whose first language is Spanish. Castro Feinberg also makes a compelling case that the laws for Florida taxpayer-funded vouchers negate access by students using them to the rights ESOL students are entitled to in traditional public schools.
State ESOL law incorporates (federal) standards through the Consent Decree in LULAC v. Florida Board of Education. They apply to all English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) programs in Florida.
As a result of these legal rights, this is what you have a right to expect in traditional schools:
- School districts select ELL programs from state approved models.
- The state provides extra funding for ELLs and monitors them to assure ESOL rules are followed by schools.
- ESOL teachers must complete 15 semester hours of training to teach ELL students.
- Teachers of other subjects must also receive training for students who don’t understand English.
- Schools must assess ELLs annually to determine progress and if they still need to take ESOL.
- Students in ESOL Programs study the same subjects and take the same examinations required of all public school students, including the FCAT.
When your child goes to a school where vouchers are used for payments, all bets are off when it comes to these rules, and it’s because these schools are private.
Voucher schools are not required to comply with state ESOL rules. Though some voucher schools may provide similar services, they are not required to report if they do or don’t. They are not subject to state ESOL law. Unfortunately, neither are charter schools.
Voucher schools are largely unregulated because they are private schools and “It is the intent of the Legislature not to regulate, control, approve, or accredit private educational institutions” (Florida Statute 1002.42, Private Schools).
A voucher school must comply with a federal anti-discrimination law (42 U.S. Code § 2000d). That law applies to institutions that accept federal funding. The effectiveness of such a mandate is often contingent on the intensity of oversight. There are over a thousand voucher schools in the state. However, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) may not make more than seven site visits each year, absent extraordinary circumstances.
We don’t know how many voucher schools accept federal funding because the FDOE doesn’t collect that information.
Voucher schools are not required to hire teachers who are college graduates, hold state teaching certificates, or are trained to teach ELLs. They are under no obligation to report the qualifications of their teachers. In 2011-12, only 6.6% of the nation’s private school teachers participated in professional development in the prior 12 months on teaching ELLs and 8.4% were not college graduates. Comparable information for teachers in Florida voucher schools is not collected by the FDOE.
We don’t know if ELLs are learning in voucher schools because voucher schools don’t administer tests whose results can be directly compared to those given in the public schools. Results for ELLs from the standardized tests used in voucher schools are not publicly reported.
The reason for the hysterics over Castro Feinberg’s piece are based on more than just voucher zeal. There are voting booth problems, too. Scathing Purple Musings reported in February that the nation’s top school privatization money man, John Kirtley, was touting a poll which showed overwhelming support for vouchers nationwide among Hispanic voters. This from the study Kirtley commissioned:
According to a May 2012 poll commissioned by the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO) and conducted by Beck Research, a Democratic-leaning firm, 85 percent of likely voters and 91 percent of Latinos in five battleground states—Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Nevada — think vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs should be available in some form, while majorities of likely voters and Latinos also support specific school choice proposals. Support is especially high for special needs scholarship programs, which are favored by 74 percent of voters and an astounding 80 percent of Latino voters.
Florida’s voucher proponents understand the threat that Castro Feinberg’s piece poses for their agenda. Someone as well-regarded in the Hispanic community as she is not someone who the usual mouthpieces can dismiss so easily. She’s not alone either. In the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald, political columnist Daniel Shoer Roth wrote:
Last week, the House approved a proposal to increase the amount of school vouchers that will give more children access to private schools, mostly religious, which seems a noble action. But every taxpayer dollar to the private sector is a dollar that is subtracted from the three million students in the public school system. With fewer resources, the quality of this inevitably erodes. And Florida is the third state to invest less money per student.
The Florida republican caucus cannot risk creating doubt among Hispanic voters in a year they want to defeat Charlie Crist. Moreover, they cannot escape the historical reality of which that Castro-Feinberg reminds them:
Hispanics were plaintiffs in school desegregation cases, fought for equity in school finance, and succeeded in safeguarding the right to public education for all undocumented students in the country with the United State Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe. With this proud history of advocacy and activism, we won’t hesitate to speak out about injustice in the state’s voucher program harming our community.
Republicans are finding it harder to sustain their school privatization narrative with references to civil rights when data and history lessons exist as clear contradictions. And especially with Jeb Bush’s new organization trumpeting the success of Florida’s public schools with Hispanic students. Why would Hispanic voters – or any demographic for that matter – want vouchers when public schools are doing so well. Furthermore, why would they want vouchers if the most vulnerable among them are being shortchanged.