Grades for Florida voucher schools?

New Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett offered more hints Wednesday that he is not satisfied with the current accountability framework for Florida private schools that accept students with vouchers and tax credit scholarships.

Making his first appearance before the Senate Education Committee, Bennett was asked by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, for his thoughts on “holding everybody accountable that receives tax dollars.” His response:

“I would suggest to you that this is a place where with all candor, sir, that even some of my supporters have been uncomfortable in the past. Because I do believe that schools that receive state funds should be held accountable and I believe that accountability should be just as transparent as what we expect from our traditional public schools.

“So I would share with you that in Indiana, every school that received state funds got a letter grade that was all calculated the same way. A public charter school got its letter grade calculated the same way as the traditional publics. Schools that received vouchers – and we did have the nation’s most expansive voucher program, pure voucher program – they got a letter grade, based on the same measurements as our traditional publics. And that way the public could make an informed choice  around school quality.

“Now I know that constitutionally, the voucher situation here isn’t the same was Indiana. And I know there’s that discussion about state funds. So I want to lay that out there. But again, these were all schools that received money from the state budget.  And I believe as a steward of the state tax dollars, we have to think about making sure that our citizens know the performance of schools that receive state tax dollars. And our job is to set the expectations for those schools and drive to those expectations.”

Senators also asked Bennett about a wide range of other issues. His biggest priorities, he said: implementing Common Core standards and reviewing SB 736, the far-reaching 2011 law that changes how district teachers are evaluated and paid.

On Common Core: “One of our greatest challenges right now is to make sure that we don’t lose this opportunity, of these transformational standards, in an environment where many people look at this as just another standard setting activity. We have to one, make sure Florida’s educators understand how transformational this will be to their jobs. And we have to make sure communities understand how transformational this will be for the children of their community.”

On SB 736: “One of the things I have done is I have gathered all kinds of information, in the short time I’ve been here and even shortly before I got here, from teachers and from administrators, (on) the implementation of 736 and a lot of concern about that. The governor asked that I make that a priority. So we have our staff diving into that. Because I think we have to, one, make sure the department is prepared to implement – and I don’t think there’s any question we’ve had some issues there, and we’re going to own those. Two, what is the capacity of the district, each district. But three, does the legislation need to be tweaked. And I think everything should be on the table around that discussion. Because one, we don’t want to back away from the concept of accountability because accountability works. We want to make sure that we provide the flexibility necessary to implement the law with fidelity. Because the law is really not useful if it’s not well implemented.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at