A former teacher’s four-page complaint to the state urged an investigation into the “widespread scope of educational neglect” occurring at the private Christian school in Osceola County. Other detailed concerns in a south florida jewish school. “The cleaning lady replaces the teacher,” she said.
In other complaints, parents wrote of disturbing incidents or troubling shortcomings in their children’s private schools.
“Kids of all ages are running out of the classroom screaming and hitting each other,” wrote one Orange County mom.
“They don’t serve lunch and they don’t even have a place to eat,” wrote one parent in Fort Lauderdale.
“I don’t see any evidence of academics,” wrote one parent in the Panhandle.
These concerns are detailed in written complaints filed with the Florida Department of Education from 2015 to 2020 against private schools that take Florida School Vouchers, state scholarships that help families pay the bills for their children’s education.
In the past 18 months, at least 238 new complaints have been filed, according to the department. The Orlando Sentinel requested copies of these documents, and any related information collected from the schools, on January 24.
The request was similar to public records requests he has filed for complaints against private schools several times since 2017.
The Education Department said in a February 15 email that it could provide copies of the complaint files at an estimated cost of $10,414.70 — an amount the newspaper considers exorbitant and inconsistent with what it has been accused of in past years and attempted to withhold. Access public records on a topic of public interest.
said Julie Anderson, editor-in-chief of the Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel in South Florida. “Either that, or they don’t want to fulfill the request.”
He said that journalists across the state receive exorbitant cost estimates in response to public records requests Michael Barfield, director of public access initiatives for the Florida Government Accountability Center, a Sarasota-based government watchdog group. He said he had witnessed a “huge explosion and increase in fees” worth state agencies over the past 18 months to two years.
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” Barfield said. “It is true to say that in the digital age, where everything is computerized, it is more affordable to access public records than it was in the age when everything was on a typewriter and in filing cabinets.”
He added, “I have not seen fees like what we see now.”
School vouchers are a hot topic in Florida and across the country this year. Sentinel has found that complaints against participating private schools provide a window into the workings of some of the private schools that participate in government voucher programs but often operate outside state control.
The state’s current voucher programs spend nearly $2 billion to send more than 252,000 students to about 2,000 private schools. Ron DeSantis last month signed legislation that makes those programs, which now target mostly young adults from low-income families, “universal” so that all college-age students in the state are eligible for scholarships.
State leaders expect about 80,000 additional students to receive these state vouchers in the next school year.
In the Sentinel’s 2017 “Schools Without Rules” investigation, the complaints helped the newspaper document private schools that hired teachers whose only academic qualifications were a high school diploma, hired coaches with criminal records, faked fire and health inspections of their buildings, and learned of questionable academic lessons. .
For the latest records request, the Education Department didn’t say how many pages of documents in the 238 complaint files the Sentinel wanted, but it estimated it would take 400 hours, or the equivalent of 10 work weeks, and “extensive use of resources and extensive clerical and supervisory assistance by Management staff’ to fulfill He. She.
In 2017, Sentinel paid $49.77 for eight complaint files, which were filed six days after the application was filed. At that rate, you can expect to pay around $1,500 for 238 files. This year, it took the department three weeks to submit a cost estimate that exceeded $10,000.
Complaints usually do not lead to any action being taken against the school. By law, the state has no control over the operations of private schools, even if they depend entirely on state scholarships for their revenue.
Unlike public schools, such private schools can hire teachers without college degrees, teach whatever curriculum you choose, and set up in facilities—from storefronts to church meeting rooms—that don’t meet Florida school building codes.
For example, a parent who complained about a Miami school in 2020 said it was not “providing proper education, nutritional lunches, or physical education” that the family expected. The department sent the parent a standard letter saying that it does not regulate private schools, but that the parent “may wish to transfer the student to any other school participating in the scholarship.”
Usually, private schools can keep much of their information secret, from staff credentials to students’ success on standardized tests. But when someone files a complaint, a public record is created. If the complaint alleges violations of scholarship rules, the state can investigate and require the school to provide documentation, including a check of the employee’s background or credentials.
One complaint the education department shared with the Sentinel in March — as attorneys for the newspaper and the department negotiated the scope and cost of a public records request — showed, for example, that three teachers at Downey Christian School in East Orange did not have bachelor’s degrees in October 2021, when a complaint was filed. against school.
Records show that these instructors taught middle school math and science, high school English, and high school math. The school enrolls more than 300 students using state scholarships, generating more than $1.4 million, according to data from Step Up For Students, which administers the most scholarships in Florida.
Downey’s manager did not respond to a request for comment.
Most of the complaints from 2017 to 2020, many of them handwritten, detail the concerns of parents with children enrolled in schools and the teachers who work there. But they sometimes include emails and documents from government officials, such as child welfare investigators or fire marshals.
In 2016, for example, the Orange County Fire Officer contacted the Education Department about “serious fire code violations” deemed “critical to the safety of life” at Pine Hills School.
The department said the Agape Christian Academy provided paperwork indicating it complied with fire codes, a requirement for vouchers to be taken, but the fire chief told state officials his office did not provide the documentation.
The administration removed the school from the voucher program in 2017 after fire code violations and other problems came to light.
That same year, a child welfare investigator raised concerns about a teacher’s criminal record at another West Orange school. Under state law, women should not have been assigned to a school that would accept state scholarships, and the school fired them at the state’s insistence.
In 2021, the newspaper reported on the former Winners Elementary School in West Orange where a teacher was arrested for inciting sexually explicit videos from a student. The complaint file helped document high teacher turnover, poor personnel screening procedures, the hiring of at least 10 teachers without college degrees as well as concerns about student safety and poor quality of academics.
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“Someone needs to visit the school and find out what’s going on there,” wrote one parent who filed a complaint in 2019.
The school, which has since changed its name to Providence Christian Preparatory School, is still in the state’s voucher program, with about 170 students using the scholarships, generating more than $570,000. The former teacher pleaded no contest to using a child in a sexual performance, a second-degree felony, last year.
The guard’s attorney, Rachel Fogat, said she continues to negotiate with the department. She added, “I remain hopeful that we will reach a resolution that will give the custodian access to these meaningful documents at a reasonable cost.”
Barfield said inflated cost estimates prevent access to records, discourage the public from submitting applications and interfere with the democratic process.
He said, “We call them public records because they belong to the public.”