Scott should veto voucher expansion bill

The success of Florida’s quarter million students learning English as an additional language is important to the future of the children, their families, their communities and the state’s economy. A bill awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature could hinder their progress, ample reason to strongly urge for a veto of SB 850.

This bill would expand the school-voucher program before conflicts among state laws are reconciled. Students learning English as an additional language are known as English Language Learners (ELLs). In Florida, they are entitled to enroll in programs of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

However, voucher schools are not required to hire teachers who are university graduates, have state teaching certificates, or are trained to teach ESOL students. We cannot monitor progress for ELLs in voucher schools because they administer tests whose results can’t be compared directly with those administered in the public schools.

An additional barrier to transparency is that results specifically for ESOL students on standardized tests used in voucher schools are not publicly disclosed. One of the reasons Hispanic organizations oppose SB 850 is that voucher schools do not have to follow state ESOL law.

This means that ESOL students in vouchers schools don’t have the rights authorized by Florida law for ELLs studying in traditional public schools. Through that law, ESOL students are provided:

• Curriculum models vetted by experts and approved by the state;

• Credentialed teachers of the English language who have at least 300 hours of training on how to teach English as an additional language;

• Credentialed teachers of all other subjects trained to teach students who have not yet mastered English;

• Annual assessment to determine progress in learning English;

• Equal access to all courses, programs, and exams available to other students;

• Communication from the schools to parents of ELLs in their home languages;

• Public reporting on the progress of students and on teacher qualifications;

• Monitoring from the state to ensure compliance with these rules.

Voucher schools are not required to provide these services. They are not required to publicly divulge what services they do offer. There is no publicly available information on the progress of ELLs in voucher schools. Therefore, parents of ELLs (and voters and taxpayers) cannot objectively compare the results of instruction among voucher schools or compare them side by side with those from traditional schools.

There has been no indication that parents of ELLs are made aware of the rights their children must surrender in exchange for a voucher. Without accessible reports on students’ academic performance, parents are prevented from making an informed choice.

There should be no expansion of the voucher program while state ESOL law can be ignored in voucher schools. Gov. Scott should veto SB 850 to encourage removal of this barrier to educational opportunities.

An additional concern that applies to all students is the effect of diversion of financial support from traditional public schools. The diverted funds can serve only a small percentage of students while causing disadvantage to the three million students (and to the 1.5 million low-income students) in our public schools.

Among the many organizations opposing SB 850 are the Anti-Defamation League, Florida PTA, Florida League of Women Voters, the Florida Education Association, and many more.

If the governor vetoes SB 850, his action will not end the voucher program. Existing law would continue it. The effect of the veto would be to block further expansion of the program and to encourage reform in state laws and funding policies.

Rosa Castro Feinberg is a retired Florida International University associate professor and a former member of the Miami-Dade County School Board.