Florida has channeled billions of taxpayer dollars into scholarships for poor children to attend private schools over the past 15 years, using tax credits to build a laboratory for school choice that the Trump administration holds up as a model for the nation.
The voucherlike program, the largest of its kind in the country, helps pay tuition for nearly 100,000 students from low-income families.
But there is scant evidence that these students fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And there is a perennial debate about whether the state should support private schools that are mostly religious, do not require teachers to hold credentials and are not required to meet minimal performance standards. Florida private schools must administer one of several standardized tests to scholarship recipients, but there are no consequences for consistently poor results.
"After the students leave us, the public loses any sense of accountability or scrutiny of the outcomes," said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County public schools. He wonders what happens to the 25,000 students from the county who receive the scholarships. "It's very difficult to gauge whether they're hitting the mark."
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice, does not seem to be bothered by that complaint.
She is driven instead by the faith that children need and deserve alternatives to traditional public schools. At a recent public forum, DeVos said her record in office should be graded on expansion of choice-friendly policies. She did not embrace a suggestion that she be judged on academic outcomes. "I'm not a numbers person," she said.
In a nutshell, that explains how the Trump administration wants to change the terms of the debate over education policy in the United States.
In the past quarter-century, Republican and Democratic administrations focused on holding schools and educators accountable for student performance.
Now, President Donald Trump and DeVos seem concerned less with measuring whether schools help students learn and more with whether parents have an opportunity to pick a school for their children. They have pledged billions of dollars to that end. And they have visited private schools in Florida to underline their support for funding private-school tuition through tax credits.
In February, Trump plugged the Florida program during a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he introduced as his guest a scholarship recipient named Denisha Merriweather. In March, the president went to Orlando to tour St. Andrew Catholic School, where students rely on the scholarships. It was his first, and so far only, school visit since taking office.
Last Thursday DeVos visited another Florida private school to highlight the program. Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary is "an awesome example of the opportunities provided through the Florida tax-credit scholarship," DeVos told reporters. She said that the administration is working on how to expand choice nationally, and that there is a "possibility" that its efforts might be patterned on Florida's tax-credit program, according to Politico.
Florida's program, created in 2001 with the full-throated support of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, R, was one of the first to harness corporate tax credits to help low-income families pay private school tuition. Sixteen other states have enacted variations on the idea.
Using tax credits to fund the scholarships, instead of direct payments from public treasuries, enabled lawmakers to work around state bans on use of public funds to support religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tax-credit programs are constitutional.
Taking the idea to the federal level is one of the clearest ways Trump could make good on his promise to supercharge private-school choice across the country. If embedded in a larger tax bill that the GOP-held Congress passes via the budget reconciliation process, it would be protected from a Senate filibuster and therefore would require only 51 votes instead of the 60 usually required to pass legislation.
Vouchers are popular with the Republican majority on Capitol Hill but anathema to most Democrats. The Republican-controlled Congress in 2004 approved a voucher program that provides direct federal funding to help poor children in the District of Columbia attend private schools.
In Florida's tax-credit program, businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar credit when they donate to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. A corporation that owes $50,000 in Florida taxes, for example, could donate $50,000 and pay nothing to the state. The nonprofit then dispenses money to students for tuition at participating private schools, although in some cases, the payment from the state does not cover the full cost of a private education.
Private schools do not need to be accredited to participate. They must show only that they've been in business for three years; that they comply with anti-discrimination and health and safety laws; and that they employ teachers who have gone through a background check and hold a bachelor's degree, three years' experience or "special skills."
About 82 percent of scholarship recipients attend religious schools, according to state data. Many teach creationism instead of evolution and require students and parents to adhere to certain principles of religious doctrine.
The Family Life Academy in Archer, Florida, requires parents to subscribe to "corporal correction," according to its handbook, and to sign a form giving the school permission to paddle their children. Colonial Christian School of Homestead, Florida, makes clear in its handbook that students will be expelled if they engage in homosexual conduct.
Critics say the public shouldn't subsidize religious instruction, even indirectly. Supporters dismiss that argument.
"No one is coerced to go to a faith-based school. It's a free decision," said Doug Tuthill of Step Up for Students, which administers most Florida scholarships. "All the program does is provide the resources so they can exercise that freedom."
The program is projected to receive more than half a billion dollars this year that otherwise would have gone to Florida's treasury. But a 2010 analysis found it saves Florida money because each scholarship costs less than the state would spend to educate the same child in public school. The scholarship is now worth $5,886 per year.
In contrast, a federal tax credit would not save money for the federal government.
For more than 15 years, Florida has been out front in the movement to hold public schools accountable for academic results. It was one of the first states to use the results of standardized math and reading tests to grade every public school on an A to F scale, with rewards for the best-rated and sanctions for the worst. As in other states, annual report cards laid out how students at each school fared on the tests, with performance broken down by race and socioeconomic status.
But Florida exempts private schools from that accountability regime, even if they participate in the scholarship program.
Schools must give scholarship students standardized tests, but the outcomes are largely irrelevant. No matter how poorly a private school performs, it can continue receiving scholarship dollars.
The state commissions an annual report on the performance of scholarship students as a group, but their performance can't be compared to that of poor children in public schools, who take a battery of different tests.
And parents seeking test data from a particular private school are likely to find none: Scores are reported separately only for private schools with at least 30 scholarship recipients. In the 2014-15 school year, just 198 of more than 1,600 participating schools met that threshold.
The stakes for parents are high: Although a disproportionate number of the state's best schools are private, so are a disproportionate share of its worst, according to Northwestern University economist David Figlio, who has studied Florida's tax-credit scholarships and produced the annual program report for six years.
"There are some schools that, year in and year out, seemed to be adding considerable value, and other schools year in and year out that seemed to be leaving kids to fall further behind," Figlio said.
Private-school results are translated into year-to-year changes in "national percentile rank," a figure that offers insight into how students compare to others in the same grade nationwide. As a group, Florida scholarship students see no change in their percentile rank from one year to the next, which means that they're learning at about the same pace as students nationwide.
But that average masks an enormous range.
At Lincoln-Marti Community Agency 23, a school of English-language learners in Miami, students on average scored 9 percentile points lower in math in 2015 than they had scored in 2014, and 5 percentile points lower in reading.
The school received $1.4 million from the tax-credit program this year to educate more than 250 students. Demetrio Perez, general counsel for Lincoln-Marti, said the test results offer an incomplete picture of performance.
"The biggest measure of accountability is that parents have a meaningful choice," Perez said. "If a parent is not satisfied with the educational program at a school, that parent can take his or her child to another school."
At Okeechobee Christian Academy in Okeechobee, Florida, scores also show students losing ground. Principal Melissa King said the academy is constantly trying to improve. "Our core belief is to support these parents in raising up the next generation to advance the Kingdom of God," King said.
Backers say the program forces public schools to improve. Figlio's research found evidence for that idea: modest test-score increases at public schools facing the most intense competition.
Students who receive scholarships come from families with an average income of $24,000 per year. Many of those parents say the assistance has given their kids a shot at a better life.
"You only have one chance to either do well by your children or to ruin them, and I was trying to give them the best opportunity they could have," said Linzi Morris, a mother of six scholarship recipients.
All six have attended Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a middle school that she said provided top-notch academics as well as music, art, monthly weekend field trips, chess and other extracurriculars. Three are now in college, she said, and the other three are headed there.
Academy Prep students go to school 11 hours per day and nearly 11 months per year, far longer than the typical student. To pay for that, the school raises more than $1 million per year in donations to supplement the scholarships. In all, the program costs $17,000 per student.
The investment appears to pay off: Students at the school learn faster than their peers nationwide, and 98 percent who finish eighth grade go on to graduate from high school, according to school officials. Eighty-four percent enroll in college.
Lincoln Tamayo, the school's principal, said it doesn't make sense to allow schools to continue receiving scholarship dollars if they fail to help children.
"Schools of all stripes, whether they be private or public charter or traditional public, are not immune from mediocrity," he said. "The anvil's got to drop somewhere."