Florida’s Catholic leaders have an urgent moral problem with the state’s tax credit scholarship program.

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A banner promoting the Florida Catholic Conference of Bishops at Good Shepherd Catholic Church on Sunday, June 3.  The conference signed up parishioners for a political action e-mail list on that day.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and the state’s other private school scholarship programs have provided Catholic schools with financial security and the opportunity to reach out to low income families in a way that would not otherwise have been possible.

During the 2017-18 school year, 31% of the 86,691 students enrolled in Florida’s Catholic schools were supported by a state scholarship.

That appears to be a good thing.  A study performed by the Urban Institute showed that Catholic school students led the way in achievement among students using tax credit scholarships.

What’s morally troubling is this:  The same program that has provided this tremendous support for Catholic schools is allowing some of the state’s neediest students to be placed in terrible non-Catholic learning environments where they don’t have access to the highly qualified teachers they desperately need.

That’s an urgent moral problem for Florida’s Catholic leaders.

The solution?  The Catholic leaders should argue that schools participating in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and other state scholarship programs be regulated by an accreditation scheme similar to that which has helped make the state’s Catholic schools so successful.

Here are some details:

One of the selling points of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is its lack of formal academic accountability.  Instead, the program’s advocates say that schools that participate in the program have the ultimate accountability – accountability to parents.  It is up to the parents of students supported by the program to judge whether their students are getting a strong education or not.  If not, then the parents can move their students to other schools.

Nevertheless, as a recent Orlando Sentinel article describes, there are many things about curricula used at some of Florida’s tax credit scholarship schools (although not at Catholic schools) that some would consider objectionable.  Many observers would find the Young Earth Creationism taught in science classes troubling, although many parents of students attending those schools would consider that a feature rather than a bug.

Teaching the predominantly minority students using tax credit scholarships that – as the Sentinel described – “slaves who ‘knew Christ’ were better off than free men who did not” seems repugnant.

But that is not what I want to focus on here.  Instead, I want to focus on basics:  Are there private schools accepting state scholarships that don’t even give their students a fighting chance to learn to read and calculate properly?  It appears that the answer is yes.

Some of the schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program use a curriculum called “Accelerated Christian Education” (ACE).   The organization’s own promotional materials describe them this way:

A.C.E. stands out from other curriculum providers with its individualized, self-instructional, mastery-based approach. With minimal assistance, PACEs allow students to absorb subject material according to their own learning ability rather than being pushed forward or held back by their age.

That is, students are pretty much on their own.  They are placed in individual cubicles (eliminating collaborative learning with other students) with workbooks and minimal (or no) access to strong teachers.

A leader of the “Esther’s School” chain of tax credit scholarship schools was quoted in the Sentinel article saying about the ACE curriculum they use:  “Honestly, with our curriculum … a certified teacher is not required.”  According to the Sentinel, at the Esther’s School site in Kissimmee “11 of 18 teachers lacked college degrees last year….For two of them, 11th grade was their highest educational level.”

This educational isolation is the last thing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need.

ACE is the sort of thing that could be eliminated if a reasonable accreditation scheme – like the one governing Florida’s Catholic schools – were used to provide oversight for private schools accepting state scholarships.

So why should Florida’s Catholic leaders take responsibility for this situation?  Isn’t it good enough for them to provide strong Catholic schools to those who are informed enough to choose them?

No.  Catholic teaching instructs us to care for all the poor – not just those who happen to be Catholic or those who happen to choose Catholic schools.  By taking advantage of Florida’s private school scholarship programs to build up the Catholic school system, our Church takes on an obligation to all students who participate in the scholarship programs.  Allowing some of the vulnerable students in the program to be deprived of the only opportunity they will ever have to be educated – and therefore to be condemned to a life of poverty – is morally unacceptable.

Florida’s Catholic leaders should argue strongly for the creation of an academic accreditation system to regulate the private schools that accept state scholarships.  And that system should be modeled on their own successful system.

It’s the moral thing to do.

This past weekend, the Florida Catholic Conference of Bishops made an effort to sign parishioners up for an e-mail list that will be used to mobilize the state’s Catholics for political causes (you can see the banner that was placed in our parish’s foyer at the beginning of this post).  It’s likely one of those causes will be support of Florida’s private school scholarship programs.  I’ll be waiting to see if our leaders decide to wash their hands of the fate of students who are enrolled in academically deficient schools like those that have adopted ACE, or whether they do the right thing and push for reform of the scholarship programs.

 

 

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