Orlando Sentinel journalists have shown that reform in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is desperately needed. How should new oversight be provided?

A team of journalists from the Orlando Sentinel demonstrated this week beyond any doubt whatsoever that dramatic reform in Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program is desperately needed, and that it should be implemented quickly, before any more students in the program are damaged any further. The Sentinel’s team has done the State of Florida a tremendous service.

The response from the organization that administers the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Step Up for Students, has been vehement and distressingly typical of the present state of the nation’s civil discourse. But embedded in all of that has been at least a whispered acknowledgement that reform is indeed needed.

It seems to me, as an amateur observer of education policy and politics, that there are two truths central to this issue that it would be useful to stipulate:

First, the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is here to stay. The state’s voters elect Republicans and will almost certainly continue to, and Republicans are going to continue to support a program in which public resources are used by low income children to attend private schools – even religious schools. Even if Democrats are elected to legislative majorities, the program is dug in enough at this point that terminating it would be nearly impossible. So reforming the program should be an urgent priority.

Second, many children who are supported by Tax Credit Scholarships have excellent educational experiences. For example, many of Florida’s Catholic schools do wonderful work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds – in part because of the quality control mechanisms provided by the state’s Catholic dioceses.

The limited regulatory mechanisms in place for tax credit scholarship schools at the Florida Department of Education and Step Up for Students have failed and must be replaced with something that will necessarily be more expensive and more intrusive.

Before a reader screams “Oh no! Not more government!” consider the quality control apparatus that keeps Florida’s Catholic schools operating at a uniformly high level.

Perhaps the regulatory mechanisms maintained by Florida’s Catholic dioceses could be replicated under some new organizational umbrella and expanded to all tax credit scholarship schools. Or perhaps the Florida Catholic Conference could be asked to head up this organization – and given the resources to make it work well.

Either way, Florida’s Catholic leaders should be willing to step up and assume a leadership role for the future of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program has provided financial stability for the state’s Catholic schools and given them the opportunity to reach out to disadvantaged students – which is their spiritual obligation. In return, the church should be willing to assume a level of responsibility for students in the program who are at non-Catholic schools and who are being deprived of an opportunity to be educated.

To the reader who says that this is a pie-in-the-sky idea and that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I would acknowledge that this is perhaps (or likely) true, but that somebody then needs to come up with a better idea. The present situation is too destructive to too many vulnerable students.

And to the tax credit scholarship advocate that objects to my argument by saying that things are as bad or worse in traditional public schools, I say this: Be a leader, dammit. Stop making excuses. Make things better for more kids.

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