Are Public Schools Safer Than Private Schools?

There is no clearer sign that foes of educational choice have lost the battle of ideas than the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s desperate attempt to smear Florida’s choice law.

Annie Martin’s front-page story in the Sunday edition of the News-Journal contains numerous inaccuracies about Florida’s scholarship tax credit law, which helps tens of thousands of low-income kids attend the school that’s best for them. For example, Martin claims in the second paragraph that the scholarship law “diverted $1.3 billion from state coffers,” which is irresponsibly misleading given that the Florida legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that the law saves $1.44 for every $1 in reduced tax revenue. She also repeatedly refers to “publicly-funded” scholarships, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the scholarships consist private funding.

But Martin’s most shameful attack on the educational choice law is her insinuation that children at Florida’s private schools are less safe than children at government-run schools, based solely on a recent case of a private school teacher caught with child pornography:

Yet, the South Daytona school isn’t subject to the same public records laws as the public schools. Although the FBI said fifth-grade teacher Matthew Graziotti had thousands of sexually explicit images of children on his home computer, the school did not have to make his personnel file public.

But is it reasonable to expect private organizations to make their employee files public, even if they receive public funding? Mark Tress, the superintendent of the private school where Graziotti had worked, argues that it is not:

The public records law no more applies to private schools than it does to The News-Journal itself. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private businesses receive money from the state and from school districts for services rendered and are not subject to the law. In this case, we are gratefully cooperating with law enforcement officials and have handed over, among numerous school records, the teacher’s personnel file. It sheds no new light.

After briefly noting that private school teachers must go through the same background checks as government school teachers, Martin ominously quotes a professor from the University of North Florida:

Aside from the initial background check for private school teachers, parents generally must trust their private school is exercising due diligence when deciding who to hire, said Luke Cornelius, an associate professor of higher education administration at the University of North Florida.

“Unfortunately, it does create a situation of ‘buyer beware,’” said Cornelius, who also is an attorney. “I think a lot of parents assume private schools, especially a religious one, is an inherently safe place.”

But because they’re not required to be as transparent as the public schools, parents at private schools are “going on faith,” he added. 

Martin’s article contains no rebuttal to the professor’s absurd allegation, leaving readers with the impression that private schools are riskier than government schools. Yet the sad fact is that these sorts of crimes are not exclusive to any one type of school. The difference is that whereas the private school employing Graziotti promptly fired him, it is much more difficult to fire teachers from Florida’s government schools. Private schools are directly accountable to parents, which provides a strong incentive for private schools to take swift action when teachers engage in misconduct. By contrast, government schools are not directly accountable to parents, and misbehaving teachers can often count on multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape to protect them.

Indeed, had Martin spent just a few minutes on Google, she would’ve learned about numerous incidences of teacher misconduct in Florida’s government schools that went unaddressed for years or resulted in mere slaps on the wrist or even reinstatement.  

For example, it took 15 years of documented problems before a Florida school board took the “first steps” to fire a high school teacher:

He is described as a nightmare teacher, one who called his students idiots and morons, made racially insensitive remarks, and locked them out of class.

And school administrators knew about it. Even though problems involving Broward math teacher Steven Yerks surfaced more than a decade ago, he was allowed to remain a teacher.

After his first unsatisfactory evaluation at Cooper City High in 2000, administrators let him transfer to Boyd Anderson in Lauderhill, where he had one troublesome incident after another, including:

•Yelling at a student to shut up before grabbing her and causing an injury;

•Allowing students to sleep in class;

•Making hostile remarks to coaches in front of students;

•Being accused by students of throwing some of them out of class for asking questions. 

“Nowhere you work can you misbehave for 15 years and keep your job,” said School Board member Rosalind Osgood. ‘I try to be fair, and I know people need income, but some things are egregious, and he had gotten away with it so long.”

The School Board finally voted in June take the first steps to fire Yerks, whose salary is $75,000.

One Florida teacher’s reign of terror lasted more than three decades, even though so many parents complained about her misconduct that more than 80 of 130 students transferred out of her class in a single year:

In 33 years as a Pinellas County teacher, her performance has been repeatedly scrutinized and admonished. School officials terminated Whipple from her first teaching contract in 1978; nudged her out of an elementary school in 1984; pushed her out of a high school in 1997. In October, they began investigating her for undisclosed reasons.

Yet until she went on medical leave on Jan. 24, she was still teaching (at $60,798 a year) and, at least through last fall, still drawing a barrage of complaints.

It took another Florida school more than a year to fire a middle school teacher who ordered students to physically attack a 7th grader:

Dehart is accused of encouraging six students to fight with Williams after the boy allegedly threatened her. The male students, ranging from ages 11 to 15, were arrested for “hitting” and “kicking” Williams, WPBF-Tv reported at the time.

Radravious claims that after he told his teacher that he “wished he could curse out teachers someday,” Dehart encouraged the attack, even telling the group to “teach him a lesson.”

“They picked him up, carried him, holding him by the neck, took him down to her classroom and forcibly made him apologize to her,” Latasha Darrisaw, Williams’ mother, told the station after the attack. “And [Dehart’s] remarks to him were, ‘I’ve got my eighth-grade boys on you; you’re not so tough now.”

Last December, a Florida judge reinstated a special needs teacher who had been fired for force-feeding hot-sauce laced crayons and Play-doh to an autistic child. The teacher claims that she only used the hot sauce “to deter the student from eating art supplies,” but the National Autism Society of America says that’s no excuse:

“There are also hundreds of school teachers and professionals across the country who can handle challenging behaviors such as pica [eating inedible objects] in a sensitive, human manner that upholds the dignity of each child,” said the Autism Society’s spokeswoman Ashley Parker. “A behavior like eating crayons in a child with autism should not automatically be viewed as a delinquent behavior.”

Last year, another judge reinstated a Florida teacher who had been fired for “ignoring an episode of oral sex in her kindergarten classroom.”

Earlier this month, a Florida middle school teacher was merely suspended after being “accused of drinking alcohol, twerking with students and receiving a lap dance from a student” at a soccer team party, even though the lap dance was caught on video.  

Though subject to laws supposedly granting greater transparency and accountability, Florida’s government schools nevertheless failed to protect students from their teachers’ misconduct. Even worse, once the misconduct was discovered, the schools too often also failed to take swift enough action to protect additional students. Yet Annie Martin and the News-Journal not only failed to provide this context, but they also misleadingly depicted such misconduct as a problem exclusive to the private sector—a charge that is completely unsubstantiated by any evidence.

Such “journalism” is reckless at best.