Comparing religious K-12 schools in Florida’s state scholarship programs to religion-affiliated colleges and universities: A response to SUFS’s Scott Kent

Step Up For Students Strategic Communications Manager Scott Kent argued in a post on the organization’s redefinED blog that many critics of Florida’s state scholarship programs for private K-12 schools use a church-state separation argument against these programs while being perfectly happy to support federal and state financial aid programs that support religion-affiliated colleges and universities.  I thought his argument required a response, which I have addressed to him below.  I genuinely hope he gives it some careful thought.

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Dear Scott,

In defending Florida’s program of state scholarships for private K-12 schools – including religious schools – you compared these state scholarships with federal and state financial aid programs for college and universities. I’m glad you did so, because that comparison raises several important questions about Florida’s K-12 scholarship programs.

Religious colleges and universities that accept federal financial aid must obey federal regulations regarding discrimination and must also prove that they meet academic standards through the accreditation process. I’ll leave the discussion about federal regulations regarding discrimination in postsecondary institutions and whether similar regulations should be applied to K-12 schools that accept Florida’s state scholarships to others – except to note that several religiously-affiliated colleges and universities in the US have decided to forego federal financial aid so that they are not subject to the discrimination rules.

Instead, I’ll focus here on accreditation. I’ll start by noting that while the accreditation process maintained for Florida’s Catholic schools by the Florida Catholic Conference has been successful, the state’s political leadership has so far expressed no interest in implementing a similar system for all of the private schools accepting state scholarships – even though there is plenty of evidence that at least a few of these schools are educationally catastrophic for their students.

For colleges and universities seeking federal accreditation, there is a fairly long list of standards to meet regarding governance, resources, faculty qualifications, and other subjects. But for the sake of this post, I’ll focus on the qualifications of the instructional faculty – since that’s the issue I most frequently encounter (although not at my institution, FSU, where the faculty generally have terminal degrees in their disciplines, like the Ph.D.’s in physics my colleagues and I hold). FSU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), as are many other colleges and universities in this region of the nation. When it comes to courses that can be applied to earning a bachelor’s degree, the SACS faculty qualifications standard says this: “doctorate or master’s degree in the teaching discipline or master’s degree with a concentration in the teaching discipline (a minimum of 18 graduate semester hours in the teaching discipline)”.

The requirement that an educator leading a college-credit course in Precalculus have a master’s degree in math doesn’t just apply to those employed at colleges and universities. High school teachers who are leading dual enrollment courses must have masters’ degrees (or at least 18 graduate credit hours in the content area) to teach the course. An educator employed by Leon County Schools and teaching at Leon High School must meet that graduate education standard – a master’s degree in math or nearly that – to teach a dual enrollment course in Precalculus. And that is how it should be.

The equivalent credential for K-12 teaching would be a bachelor’s degree. Why do I say that? Because that is what the State of Florida requires for the teachers in the public K-12 schools.

It doesn’t have to be a bachelor’s degree from a college-based or university-based teacher education program – although for an elementary or early childhood teacher a bachelor’s degree program that focuses mostly on how young children learn makes a lot of sense. Nor does the bachelor’s degree have to be in the exact subject in which a teacher is teaching. I know of remarkably effective physics teachers who earned their bachelors’ degrees in biology, chemistry and math education.

But an accreditation program that checks educator credentials would make sense for any program that provides public support for K-12 schools.  The Orlando Sentinel documented one instance of a school in which two individuals who were employed as teachers had not even finished high school. That school should not be receiving state support. Period.

Yet Florida’s policy-makers want to maintain state support for that school that employs two teachers who haven’t graduated from high school. That should be changed.

I’ve seen the church-state issue embedded in Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program argued in all sorts of ways that have merit (even if I don’t agree with the conclusions reached). But we really should agree that Florida has a public interest in doing the best it can to provide an effective teacher for every student. In colleges and universities, we use a graduate degree as a necessary condition for deciding that an educator is qualified. At the K-12 level, the bachelor’s degree should be regarded as necessary (although not sufficient) for designating a qualified educator.

Private K-12 schools (religious and otherwise) participating in Florida’s state scholarship program should be subject to an accreditation program. And the accreditation process should require that teachers have bachelor’s degrees.

Thank you, Scott, for bringing that up.


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