Setting the Record Straight on the Orlando Sentinel’s Sensational Journalism

So the Orlando Sentinel spent six months combing through years and years of records, looking for every piece of available data and every complaint about Florida’s private school choice programs.
What did they find?
Just a handful of examples of violations or misconduct out of 2,000 schools.
In their (superficial) analysis, these outlier issues (that should rightly be corrected) thus indict and malign the ENTIRE choice system in Florida, in their view. They claim in a video accompanying the article that this is the “most loosely regulated school choice program in the country” – which anyone who knows anything about school choice programs knows this to be totally false as Florida’s choice system has numerous financial and academic accountability measures.
(Here is the Sentinel’s article. Here is the response from Step Up for Students)
The Sentinel cites 19 private schools with fire code violations – but they don’t mention that public schools in a single county had more than 1,000 fire code violations in an earlier investigation.
The Sentinel cites a couple episodes of teacher sexual misconduct (which obviously should have zero tolerance) – but they don’t mention that hundreds upon hundreds of instances of sexual misconduct happen across Florida in public schools.
They don’t mention that the tax credit scholarship program saves the taxpayers money, according to Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
They don’t mention that the tax credit scholarship program improves the public schools, according to research by Northwestern University.
They don’t mention that 80% of parents were “very satisfied” with the academic progress of their child in the tax credit scholarship program (compared to just 4% with the previous public school).
They don’t mention that the 92% of McKay special needs scholarship parents were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with that program (compared to just 32% with the previous public school).
And they barely touch upon the performance gains and long-term improvements for students in the program. How well does this program perform? Just ask the former choice students who are now in college.
This biased piece glossed over the major research study that came out last month from the Urban Institute that showed students in the tax credit scholarship program were far more likely to go to college and obtain degrees. If a student was enrolled in a private school for more than four years by way of the tax credit scholarship, they were essentially 40% more likely to enroll in college. And if they enrolled early in the tax credit scholarship program and stayed in for more than four years, they were 29% more likely to obtain associates degrees.
Guess what? The Sentinel had an advance copy of the Urban Institute report, interviewed the main researcher, and chose not to publish a story about it last month – and then tried to discredit it in their story by selectively citing one fact.
Please read Step Up for Students’ in-depth response to the Sentinel story: https://www.redefinedonline.org/2017/10/orlando-sentinel-response/.
Here is the summary of Step Up’s response:

  • The Orlando Sentinel identified some legitimate issues that deserves fixes, but also distorted the overall effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and participating schools by omitting crucial information and context. The full body of evidence does not support the newspaper’s characterization of the system as broken – in fact, just the opposite.
  • The scholarship gives low income parents significant power to determine which school is best for their child. Studies of academic outcomes suggest the vast majority are choosing schools that lead to better results, including far higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
  • The Sentinel highlighted an Orlando school, TDR Academy, as an example of a poor choice made by scholarship parents. This subjective judgment was made from two visits totaling less than two hours, and based partly on the school’s modest facilities. In fact, the school is producing strong learning gains for its low-income and special needs students. Read more here.
  • No education sector has a perfect compliance record or found means to exclude every bad actor, and scholarship supporters are committed to continuous improvement. But over the past five years, state regulators have removed 18 schools from scholarship programs, denied participation to 18 applicants, and sanctioned scores of others, while school districts have shut down few if any schools for performance-related issues.
  • Financial fraud associated with scholarship programs is rare, and amounts to less than .01 percent of total funding. Step Up For Students led a recent effort to strengthen financial reporting for participating schools, and a change in state law this year gives regulators more discretion to sanction schools that CPAs flag as problematic. The Sentinel does not mention that reported financial fraud in Florida public schools exceeds the amount in scholarship programs.
  • The Sentinel believes the scholarship is problematic because participating private schools are not required to employ state certified teachers. In fact, many private schools do anyway. Further, the Sentinel omits the fact that teacher absenteeism is chronic in high-poverty public schools – and that many districts do not require substitutes to have college degrees.

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