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IRE Podcast: Vouching for Education

IRE. IRE. IRE Radio.

Publicly funded education used to be a radical idea in the United States. The first public school opened in Boston in 1821 but it took another century before compulsory education laws made their way to every state. And even then minorities and women were often left behind. Many people didn't make it to high school. Fast forward to today and more or less everybody has to go to school. Every corner of the country needs to offer some form of public education. And they use taxpayer dollars to do it. Teachers have to pass certifications and students take standardized tests. The government can regulate everything from curriculum, to grading, to how facilities are run. But in some states people are questioning whether that's really the best way to do things. They want schools to have more freedom to incorporate religion or try out experimental curriculum. And they want students to have the option to use public money to attend private schools. So they've created state scholarship programs to make that possible. Florida has one of the largest programs in the country. In 2017, private schools there received nearly one billion dollars in public funding. But an Orlando Sentinel investigation found that the state has very little power to oversee how that money is being spent or how those schools are run.

We found schools where teachers do not have college degrees or even principals do not have college degrees. The facilities, sometimes they were kind of tiny cramped windowless places.

On this week's episode, Leslie Postol talks about how she and her colleagues Annie Martin and Beth Kassab dug into Florida's school voucher program a program touted by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as one of the best in the country. They visited almost 40 schools, dug through thousands of documents and worked to write a balanced story about a highly politicized topic. I'm Erin McKinstry and you're listening to the IRE Radio podcast

In early 2017 President Donald Trump paid a visit to Florida with his freshly appointed education secretary Betsy DeVos. The highly publicized trip was meant to highlight the success of a state scholarship program in Florida.

President Donald Trump joined by his newly confirmed education secretary Betsy DeVos, Friday afternoon in Pine Hills at the private St. Andrew Catholic school.

The president taking some time to promote the hot button issue of school choice meeting with parents and students about his–

Education is the civil rights issue of our time and it's why I've asked Congress to support a school choice bill. We've got a lot of success in Florida and I love it. It's my second home.

These programs are called different things by different people. You might have heard them called school voucher programs whatever the name the Trump administration has been talking about them a lot. De Vos says she'd like to see them across the country. Basically they give students the option of using public funding to attend private schools. They've also received a lot of criticism.

People who are worried about how public money or money that would otherwise be public money is being spent. You know, raised concerns about we're sending a lot of money to a lot of schools with really no guarantee or no assurance that the money is being well spent.

That's Leslie Postol a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel. She said that around the same time of Trump's visit the owner and the office manager of a private school in Florida were charged with Medicaid fraud. They were accused of stealing more than four-and-a-half million dollars from their student's accounts. The school worked with special needs students. One pled guilty and the other is currently awaiting trial. Over the course of the last school year they received more than 700,000 dollars from the very program that Trump and DeVos were touting. That piqued Leslie's interest and the interest of two colleagues — Beth Kassab and Annie Martin.

Those two events together kind of made us want to take a deeper look at what was actually going on at all these schools.

Florida's three scholarship programs, one, for low income students and two, for students with disabilities. The Department of Education runs the first and a nonprofit runs the other two. All three are funded with public money. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states have some sort of program that gives public school students money to attend private schools. These programs have received a lot of attention from the media, policymakers and education officials. But Leslie and her colleagues thought there was a piece of the conversation that was still missing.

What we were trying to do was something different than a kind of policy level piece which, you know, our newspaper and obviously plenty of others have done. We really wanted to focus on what is happening inside and you know, what is this place? To who's next bail bonds and why is that a school. And you know what are parents saying.

And because of that they didn't start by interviewing policymakers or by digging into documents. Instead they did what Leslie calls good old fashioned reporting.

Beth Kassab who is one of my colleagues and is now our enterprise editor. She kind of asked, hey can we just visit all the schools in Central Florida. Now she's not an education reporter. So she didn't realize that there were almost 400 of them just in our area. So we kind of said, no we can't probably visit 400 schools, but let's see if we can visit some of them.

Not all private schools take scholarship money. So Leslie, Annie and Beth requested two databases to find schools that do. The databases track enrollment numbers and scholarship amounts for Florida's programs. They used them to crunch numbers and identify schools. Early on in the reporting process, they started showing up at some of those schools, often unannounced.

Most of the time we just kind of showed up and said, "hey we're reporters from the Sentinel, we're working on stories on scholarships and kind of interested in seeing what you're doing". And I think we were surprised that more often than not we were invited in and sometimes given a little tour at least you know allowed to speak with the director and get some information. And those were really eye opening just to see the huge variety of places, some that kind of looked like what maybe your idea — traditional idea of a school is. And some that were, you know, in little offices, in strip malls, in a building rented from a church.

They tried to pick a variety from high end private schools that had been around a long time to smaller schools that opened a few years ago after the program started. And that relied on scholarship money for the majority of their operating budgets.

We got a taste of a school that normally charges eight or nine or ten thousand dollar tuition, on one hand, and then we went to places that were basically daycare centers that had expanded. A couple we found just by accident like we were visiting one school and we saw maybe a sign that said, "we take scholarships" outside and we just stopped on in.

What they found was shocking and complicated.

One that we visited, the facility was really rundown and you know there was a hole in the wall under the window and there was a hole in the ceiling with wires coming out. And then the director said this is our library and it was a completely empty room. No books, no furniture, no computers. And she said, "oh well we're moving". When we went back to the office and we looked up online and in the court records and found out they were being evicted. So that's why they were moving because they hadn't paid rent in more than a year.

They visited the schools in pairs. One person would take notes and the other would ask questions.

And I think that was really helpful both just to have sort of that double check on, "hey, you know I saw that hole in the wall with wires coming out. Did you see that too?" Just in case there was an issue that we had notes from both of us.

Several of the teachers and principals they met didn't have college degrees. But one school, the students sat behind partitions and did worksheets all day. At another, the teachers barely taught.

It looked like an in-home daycare, but they had a classroom in the back for kids. When we asked like, oh what curriculum do you use? They didn't know. And they were like looking on their bulletin board to see what they used and then they had a daily schedule on the board. And now this was an example where I was, you know, kind of doing the interview and Annie was looking around and she wrote down their daily schedule because she noticed that it was only like two hours of academics for what was supposed to be a six hour school day

At another school they visited, the students worked on computers all day. And as the principal was showing Leslie around, she noticed something odd. He showed us this boy's screen and he had Ds and Fs and everything that was like on the side. And I — because we were leaning over I just said to the kid, "hey, buddy you know, what grade are you in?". And he couldn't answer me. And then it turned out that he was from Haiti as many of the students were at that school and he doesn't speak English. And they had to get like another girl in the class to translate for him. But this kid was working all day on an online program that was all in English. So I kind of questioned whether that was really going to help him learn.

But they also found positive examples. The scholarship programs have strong supporters, they give parents the freedom to send their kids to specialized schools if they have special needs, or to Christian schools if they want them to have a religious education.

There's not a 140,000 kids in this program because people don't like it. So we tried to be aware that it is obviously meeting people's needs at some level.

Many of the schools, including the one the Haitian boy attended, are run by recent immigrants and many of their students are recent immigrants as well. Leslie found one principal who said that was important for many of our kids and parents.

She said parents like that most of her teachers are bilingual that everybody can speak Spanish. Her parents often don't speak English that well and they like that they can come to the school and everybody speaks Spanish and can help them. Now she said the classes are taught in English, but she said she's sort of appealing to her community.

They also found a Montessori-style school that has been formed by public school teachers and situations where low-income students or students with disabilities felt like they couldn't get what they needed from a public school and were able to afford an alternative because of the program.

Going to visit all the schools I mean that was really time consuming because they're not all, you know, right next to our office and you're driving around and hoping someone was there. But pretty much every time we went and we got in and we left, it would just be like, wow that was so interesting and I'm so glad we did that. I felt like that was really the backbone of the story.

In the end they visited 35 schools. The state had only visited 22 in the last year. Although many of the schools they visited had problems. A lot of the issues they encountered weren't something the state could do anything about. Private school teachers don't have to be state certified or use a specific curriculum. But remember how they got started on the story. The two people that were accused of Medicaid fraud. That is something the state could do something about. And Leslie, Beth and Annie wanted to see if things like background checks, fire and safety inspections and allegations of fraud were being properly overseen by the state and the nonprofit that administered the program. So they turned to documents and data to help.

The case where there have been the arrest for Medicaid fraud that prompted one of us to request from the State Department of Education, had there been an investigation on their end? And then once we realized that there had been then we asked, well can we have your fraud investigations for other schools, let's say for the last five years.

Once we dug into those they realized that several schools had falsified their health and fire safety records. And many of them continue to receive funding. They also found a school that continued to receive millions of dollars even though it had hired teachers with criminal backgrounds and failed to pay some of its teachers. And in another case the state pulled scholarship funds from a private Christian school after the principal and owner was accused of molesting a 15-year-old student. While the allegations were being investigated he was still able to serve as an administrator at a second school opened in his wife's name. Leslie said. There just aren't a lot of checks on the few rules that exist. Under the law that created the program, state officials can only visit a total of 10 randomly selected schools a year.

Then they can do a few others if there's a school that's had some problems that have come to their attention. So there's like 2000 of these schools and they're visiting 22 or 27. First of all they can't do very much when they visit. What they can do is they can just look at the required documents. So do you have something that shows you know you've had your fire inspection and you've had your background checks on — your criminal background checks. And even then, most of the schools don't have those available like they're supposed to. I mean they visited 27 schools a year before and 24 couldn't provide the documentation. And mind you these aren't surprise visits, these are scheduled.

After digging around in the Florida Department of Education's website, Leslie and her colleagues also realized that there was a way for parents to file complaints against the schools.

So once we realized that those existed then we requested a big batch of those. I think we've got about 80.

In general, Florida's open records laws are pretty good. Up until that point they hadn't had any problems getting the data and documents they needed. But when the complaints came back the state had redacted some of the parents phone numbers.

But of course, when I complained about that, then they decided they should have redacted everything. So we had a kind of funny moment where they said, can we resend those 70 complaints more redacted? And I said, no you've already sent them. Thank you, I don't need them blacked out further.

They argued that parent information on the complaints could potentially identify the child. But Leslie didn't press further. By the time they responded she had already used LexisNexis to find what she needed. Once the complaints came in, Leslie, Annie and Beth had thousands of pages of documents to dig through. They used Google Docs to keep everything organized and then they divided the workload alphabetically and started reading.

I think I started with A and Beth started down at the bottom and Annie started with L or something and we just went through them each of us taking notes.

Much of the documents were boilerplate responses from the state, but others provided fascinating details that helped paint a broader picture of some of the problems.

So some parents will get pretty frustrated that there was just no recourse when they said, "hey you know my kid's teacher was this guy who was fired from public school for having porn on his computer" or "my kid was getting really baby-ish work or my kid wasn't getting the services that I expected given that they have autism. What can I do?" And the state basically would say, you can find a different private school but we have no control over their academic offerings.

They found a teacher complaint against the administrators accused of Medicaid fraud. It was submitted four months before the pair were arrested and funding was pulled. But at the time, the State Department of Education only requested a few documents and hadn't taken any further action. They also used the complaints to identify another group of sources. Families. Many of the schools the reporters visited were proud of the work they were doing. They were happy to do video interviews for the project and to connect the reporters with parents and kids who'd benefited from the scholarship programs. But it was also important for them to find families who'd been hurt by the lax oversight and that proved trickier especially since many of the parents' phone numbers had been redacted from complaints.

One woman and she was featured pretty high in our story. I mean I couldn't find a phone number for her but I found her address and I just kind of showed up at her door.

The woman's name was Ada Melendez.

She was really very sweet because she has three boys and two — the two twins have autism and I happened to get there just as — it was the summer still on but they had like weekly therapy sessions so the therapists were there. So it was a little chaotic in her house but the boys were also occupied with their therapists.

Ada's five year old boys qualified for a state scholarship because of their disabilities. She found a private school that promised specialized help. But instead they got a 21 year old teacher with no bachelor's degree and no experience working with children with autism. Her complaint to the state fell on deaf ears. Although Ada was hesitant to talk with Leslie at first, worried that the school might come after her in some way. She eventually opened up.

I think she felt like sort of relieved that someone was listening to her story and not just sending her a form letter.

Ada's first language was Spanish and although she and Leslie were able to communicate, Leslie knew that in order to do a more in-depth interview she would need a translator.

I told her we would follow-up and I had a colleague who speaks Spanish. Gave her a callback and he came along with me for follow-up. So that just helped her comfort level a bit.

Ada had also complained to the state that she thought the facility didn't have the proper permits in place. And when Leslie called the City to confirm, she was right. The school had been operating for a year without a fire inspection or the proper permits.

The State had her complaint where she wrote that but they never followed up.

Ada wasn't alone. The Sentinel interviewed several other families with similar experiences. Now that they had on the ground coverage of the program, it was time to take their findings to public officials. But they hit a wall. They wanted to interview the Education Commissioner and the Director of the State School Choice Office. But the department denied their request. They tried multiple times, but in the end the department's communications staff would only respond to their questions via e-mail.

There was not really a good reason — not a good official reason so I'm really not sure. We tried many times and were just sent e-mails. So I felt like they were mad early on about another story that we wrote.

The Florida Department of Education said they thought the program was working to help students access a high quality education. In many cases, when the reporters confronted them with the problems they'd found, the State said there was nothing they could do. Leslie, Beth and Annie also interviewed six or seven education experts, but they ended up not including that in the final version.

We decided that we didn't want to put that in the first story. It just sort of policy wonk-ish.

It was time to write. Leslie said the process was —

Torturous. We just had so much. You know I think we sort of split it up that I would take a stab at starting with the main story. Annie Martin had one of the second stories and then Beth Kassab had one of those as well. So I guess we each took a lead on one of what would be three stories and then a lot of back and forth with all of us reading them and making suggestions.

It took several drafts but they finally published the story as a three part series called Schools Without Rules. And despite their best efforts to tell the story and back everything up with documents and data, the response was as polarized as the political debate around school choice.

We were pretty blasted with lots of criticism so it was a good deal of stress about that. Although there wasn't any criticism that anything was wrong. It was just that people's reactions seem very much formed by their views on school choice. The people who are in favor of that, of course, were furious and slamming us. And the people who think there's too much moving toward the privatization of public education were delighted.

Still the state did pull scholarship funding from two of the schools they'd highlighted and the House subcommittee held a special hearing to discuss scholarship programs in response to the story. And it also sparked a debate about whether more oversight of the schools and the program is necessary. The reporting took almost seven months. Along the way. All three of them had a balance beat reporting with a longer term project. But Leslie said, working as a team helped.

I think everything that we did we always bounced off each other. So I think we all felt like we were invested in everything even if we weren't writing the particular story. If there was advice, just be willing to listen to your colleagues you know maybe they're not writing something exactly the way you would or maybe they are not thinking the story exactly the way you would. But maybe you'll come to something that's better than either of you would have on your own. So–

Thanks for listening. Take a look at our episode notes for links to the Sentinel series and resources for reporting on education. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play or wherever else you get your podcasts. And you can spend hours listening to the stories behind some of the best investigative reporting in the country. At IRE.org/podcast The IRE Radio Podcast is recorded in the studios of KBIA. Sarah Hutchins is our editor. From Columbia Missouri, I'm Erin McKinstry

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