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Private schools get free pass

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From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 31.

From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 31.

More than 26,000 low-income K-12 students in Florida are no longer attending a failing public school in the state. Instead, they have transferred to private or parochial schools in Florida thanks to $120 million in publicly financed vouchers.

What these students have gotten themselves into, however, remains a mystery. Although taxpayers are paying for Gov. Jeb Bush’s school voucher program, the public has virtually no access to the schools’ financial or employment records — information the state’s Sunshine Law requires to be open at traditional public schools.

“If they’re taking public money, they should be held accountable just like any other group,” said S.V. Date, a reporter at the Palm Beach Post who has extensively covered the state’s voucher program. “If it goes unscrutinized now, it’s just going to get worse.”

Only three states currently use public funds for school vouchers. Although the details of each program differ, none of the states require participating private and parochial schools to comply with open record or open meeting laws. The schools are also exempt from having to report attendance figures, suspensions or dropout rates.

In July 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the constitutionality of school vouchers, opening the door for states to experiment with privatizing public education. By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that the school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, did not violate the separation between church and state.

Since that time, President Bush has pushed a federal school voucher initiative that was passed by the Senate in late January. The $14 million pilot program will give approximately 1,700 low-income students in Washington, D.C., taxpayer-funded grants of up to $7,500 to attend a private school in the district.

State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) says Wisconsin’s school voucher program has been a failure since its inception 13 years ago. More than 100 private and parochial schools in Milwaukee received $32 million of public financing last year alone, and yet virtually all school records and meetings were closed to the public. Nearly 11,000 students in the city received vouchers last year to help offset the cost of tuition.

“For us to understand if they’re really working, we need to be able to see their records, to attend their meetings,” Sinicki said. “How do they choose their programs? How do they choose their students? The public deserves to know these things.”

— JL