Florida will devote nearly $1 billion to private schools this year. What happened at Arlington Country Day School is just one reminder of what can go wrong.

 

It was National School Choice Week. And no place celebrated quite like Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott declared it Florida School Choice Week. Nearly 4,000 events were held around the state. The president of National School Choice Week issued statements, gushing about what was happening here — and what has been happening for years.

And then the week ended with news out of Jacksonville that was both troubling and ironic.

Arlington Country Day, a private school that had stayed open with public money, abruptly closed its doors.

This is not a new story. Variations of it have played out in the 20 years since state leaders began allocating and redirecting billions of public dollars to private schools.

But perhaps as troubling as the schools that have shut down abruptly are some of the ones that remain open — with little fiscal oversight or academic accountability.

We have the largest school voucher and scholarship initiative in the nation. With about 140,000 students using vouchers or tax-credit scholarships at nearly 2,000 private schools, more children now attend private schools in Florida with the help of public dollars than in any other state. If all of these students were in their own school district, it would be Florida’s sixth-largest — ahead of Duval County.

The public money involved: nearly $1 billion a year.

Even in Florida, a place with an $85 billion budget, a billion dollars is hardly small change. Florida devotes more money to private schools than it does for entire state agencies. For instance, the last fiscal year included about $295 million for state law enforcement.

It would be one thing if what happened at Arlington Country Day was an isolated, rare issue. It is not. There are much more troubling stories. And too little is being done to prevent them from happening again and again.

Last year the Orlando Sentinel did an investigation, “Schools Without Rules,” that documented a system so weakly regulated that it is rife with fiscal and academic issues.

Beyond the policy details, the report was full of anecdotes about what is happening in Orlando and beyond. A school with a 24-year-old principal who was still studying at a community college. Another principal who was under investigation for molesting a student opening a different school, with a new name, and still receiving scholarship money. Schools with no books, computers or playgrounds, operating in aging strip malls. And on and on.

This is not meant as a rant about school choice. That would be hypocritical of me. I have a daughter who has attended a public arts magnet for middle school and high school.

It isn’t meant as rant about private schools or parents choosing to send their children to them.

And it isn’t meant to be a blanket indictment of those who worked inside the Arlington school or any other private school receiving public money. There obviously are many strong schools, admirable administrators and teachers, happy parents and students.

But in a state where politicians love to talk about “accountability” in education, it is striking how the exact same politicians want to pour more and more public money into education with remarkably little accountability.

It’s easy, but too simplistic, to make this a Republican issue, starting with Jeb Bush as governor and spreading across the country. (Last year President Donald Trump visited a private school near Orlando along with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and said he wants to replicate Florida’s “great success” nationwide.)

Democrats have been a part of it, too. Last year 24 of 40 Democrats in the Florida House voted to expand scholarship programs — without any significant changes in oversight.

Public schools must report graduation rates, hire teachers with college degrees, give standardized tests, make budgets public and meet state building codes for schools.

Private schools using public money have none of these requirements. Beyond that, there often is too little enforcement of what requirements they do have.

By Florida law, the state is limited in its ability to visit private scholarship schools. According to the Sentinel report, the state visited 22 schools in 2016. The previous year, the state visited 27 — and found four to be compliant with scholarship regulations.

In some ways, what happened at Arlington Country Day is a rarity. The state conducted a visit in October, recorded issues, gave the school a window of time to comply, and cut off funding in January.

Parents and students didn’t know about this until the school closed Friday, wrapping up School Choice Week by leaving them with no choice but to find a different school to attend Monday morning.

mark.woods@jacksonville.com; (904) 359-4212)