$1 Billion Well Spent? You Decide.
DISCLAIMER: This is not a blog against vouchers. We will not be addressing Gardiner or Mckay scholarships, which provide assistance to students with disabilities. This is not a blog against private religious schools (we have friends whose children are thriving at their chosen religious schools). This blog questions one particular curriculum and wonders why Florida, which uses rigorous (sometimes developmentally inappropriate) standards and assessments to label public schools serving low income children as failures, encourages students from those schools to utilize diverted tax funds via Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to attend schools with absolutely no academic oversight? It appears Florida has created a test and punish accountability system that is designed to drive children from the public school system, pushing our most vulnerable students to schools where academics may take a back seat to evangelism. Is this money well spent? You decide.
In October, the Orlando Sentinel published an investigative report on Florida’s scholarship programs. If you haven’t read it, you should stop right now and do so. Seriously, read it. In this blog, we take a look at Accelerated Christian Education or ACE, the most popular Christian curriculum used in the private schools accepting Florida’s publicly funded “scholarships” or vouchers.
Florida will send nearly $1 billion dollars to private schools this year. The Sentinel report demonstrated that these private “voucher” schools operate free from most of the accountability mandates required by Florida’s traditional public and charter schools. While parents of public school students complain about the Florida/Common Core standards and the high stakes testing associated with them, private voucher schools need not follow the state’s academic standards nor are their teachers, schools and students ranked based on standardized test scores. Indeed, per the Sentinel, “escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”” If parents do complain to the state regarding the quality of the education at a voucher school, a typical response from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) is “they can conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate.”
The FLDOE does not require accreditation and does not monitor academic quality at publicly-funded voucher schools by design (read more in this Edweek article):
“While Florida’s public school accountability system is viewed as among the toughest, its hands-off approach to private-school choice programs is not contradictory, said Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education while he was Florida’s governor. The main source of oversight and accountability in private schools are parents who regulate them with the choices they make, she said.
“The goals of choice are not to turn private schools into public schools,” said Levesque, whose organization was working in more than 20 states last year alone to pass bills related to private school choice.”
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTCS) program was designed to allow publicly funded vouchers to private schools through a money-laundering-ish corporate tax credit. About 78 percent of Florida’s scholarship/voucher students are enrolled in religious schools and, according to the Sentinel, the most common curriculum at these non-secular “voucher schools” was a self-paced program called Accelerated Christian Education or ACE:
“One curriculum, called Accelerated Christian Education or ACE, is popular in some private schools and requires students to sit at partitioned desks and fill out worksheets on their own for most of the day, with little instruction from teachers or interaction with classmates.”
One such ACE school was the TDR Learning Academy in Orlando, described by the Sentinel as:
“The school, founded by a pastor and housed in a shopping center on Curry Ford Road, relied on scholarships for most of the nearly 100 students enrolled last year.
Like many of the Christian schools that take state scholarships, TDR uses one of a handful of popular curricula that, as one administrator explained, teach “traditional” math and reading but Bible-based history and science, including creationism.
TDR uses ACE, which includes workbooks for every subject. Students are to complete up to 70 a year. Gonzalez, the pastor’s son-in-law, said students benefit from doing ACE workbooks at their own pace.”
In case you were wondering, 100 students would divert $588,600 of public funds to this private school (at the current FTCS rate of $5,886/student).
We were intrigued by this ACE curriculum used by so many religious voucher schools in Florida, so we decided to take a closer look and ordered a sampling of 5th grade ACE curricula. We chose 5th grade because it included U.S. History and our boys had recently completed the grade, making us somewhat familiar with the Florida Standards based curriculum for public school 5th graders. We expected to see a creationist view in the science curriculum but were surprised to see the extent that religious instruction was woven throughout the core courses. Nearly every lesson, in every subject, emphasized religion. Here is a sampling of what we discovered:
Many of the 5th grade math problems focused on “religious” situations (from 5th Grade Math Pace 1049 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE)
page 9: “A church auditorium will seat 550 people. So far, 329 people have been seated. How many seats are left?”
page 10: “A missionary received 1,325 Bibles in one year. He gave away 960 Bibles during that year. How many Bibles did the missionary have left at the end of the year?”
page 11: “A missionary family witnessed about Jesus to 1,275 people during the past two years. Another missionary family witnessed to 934 people during the same two years. To how many people did the families witness altogether?”
5th grade English lessons reinforced religious tenants (5th Grade English Pace 1049 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE), page 39:
Students are asked to “Change each interrogative sentence into a declarative sentence”
(38) Do you love to serve Jesus? (A: I love to serve Jesus.)
(39) Did you learn about Solomon? (A: I learned about Solomon.)
(40) Will God give you wisdom? (A: God will give me wisdom.)
Science lessons reinforced biblical principles (5th Grade Science Pace 1053 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE):
Discussing diatoms and other phytoplankton, page 32:
“Diatoms are unusual plants… These tiny microscopic plants provide more food than any other living thing.”
“God thought the tiny diatoms important enough that He designed them with more than 100,000 kinds of shapes. Yet most people will never be able to see them. However, God does not mind that we do not see them. They are important to Him, and they are important to living things on Earth…”
“It is no wonder I am like no one else,” thought Ace. “God cared enough for the tiny little diatoms that He made over 100,000 designs for them. God cares much more for me. Because I know He made me different from anyone else, I know God has a special plan for my life also.”
Perhaps most surprising was the U.S. History curriculum, which often seemed to be more Bible Study then Social Studies:
5th Grade Social Studies Pace 1050 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE:
Writing Prompt, page 3:
“Ace is concerned about Ronnie and Susie because they are lost sinners. Ronny always tells Ace he is too busy for church. Susie usually makes up something to do so she cannot go to church. Ace and Racer want Ronny and Susie to be saved. They pray often for them. Write how you were concerned.”
Early People Who Came to America, page 10 (discussing whether Native American ancestors originally entered North America from Asia, by crossing the Bering Straits):
“Because no written records have been found, we do not know the history of Native Americans before they came to the Americas, However, we do know that all Native Americans had the same ancestors. All came from one of Noah’s three sons. The members of Noah’s family were the only people living after the Great Flood. Therefore, we know from the record in the Holy Bible that all people born since the Flood have come from Noah.”
5th Grade Social Studies Pace 1055 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE, discussed The Civil War or, as ACE refers to it “The War Between the States”:
Abraham Lincoln Was Killed, page 31:
“The evening of the play, Mr. John Wilkes Booth had stopped for a drink of liquor. During the play, Mr. Lincoln’s bodyguard left and also went for a drink of liquor. Those two drinks of liquor cost the life of one of America’s greatest Presidents. Had neither Mr. John Wilkes Booth nor the body guard wanted a drink of liquor, the tragic act might never have occurred. These two drinks of liquor were said to be the costliest drinks in American history. Liquor always destroys.”
The final section on “The War Between the States” summarized the “good parts” of the war:
“God Used the War Between the States to Bring Many to Christ” page 34:
“Although the War between the States was tragic, God used the war to accomplish His purposes. Revival meetings were held in army camps of both the North and South during the war. Soldiers on both sides attended public worship. At these services many soldiers heard the Gospel and received Christ as their Savior.”
5th Grade Social Studies Pace 1060 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE, World War I to the present:
United Nations, page 30:
“The United Nations has not been able to bring about world peace, and one reason is because of its membership. The U.N. accepts members whose governments are controlled by dictators who do not desire to protect the freedom of other countries. God’s Word states, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos #3:3) The United States cannot “walk,” or work, with nations that have no understanding of “liberty and justice for all.”
Many people believe the United Nations was the last hope for world peace, but there has been little peace in the world since it was established. Because of its membership in the U.N., the United States has been drawn into several wars. United Nations’ forces have been sent to keep people free in various parts of the world.
People will never by their own efforts be able to keep peace among nations. In God’s Word we learn that all people have a sinful nature and a spirit that is rebellious against God. As we study history, we see that people often act in un-Godly ways. Only God can give peace to the world, and He has promised to bring peace to Earth when Jesus Christ returns to rule as King of kings. The Bible points out that the days just before Jesus returns to weigh on Earth will be a time when many people will forget God. Events in our world help us understand we are living in the last days – the most exciting days of world history! Everything happening around us is in preparation for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
To be clear, we are not opposed to a parent’s right to choose a religious education for their child, we were merely surprised at the extent to which this fundamentalist Christian theology was woven into all core content, given that public tax dollars are diverted to fund these ACE schools.
ACE prides itself in “providing a Christ-centered curriculum through which students can receive the BEST in education while being guided to see life from God’s point of view” (watch “ACE School of Tomorrow” to learn more). While we can certainly understand why a parent might choose a private religious school for their child, is the ACE curriculum really “the BEST” in education? To our eyes, the curriculum appears to be much less challenging than the curriculum our children were presented in public school. Assignments and reading passages seemed simplistic. Questions appeared to rely primarily on rote memorization, with little deeper thought. Will this curriculum make a child “college and career ready”?
For example, 5th Grade English Pace 1049 by Accelerated Christian Education ACE (p27) included instructions such as “A sentence usually ends with a period or question mark” and “A sentence always begins with a capital letter.” (These are, we believe, kindergarten standards in Florida).
The 5th Grade English Pace 1049 English Test (page 1) asks students to “underline the group of words that is a sentence”:
(1) a. Are you as wise as Solomon? b. As wise as Solomon once was?
(2) a. God gives wisdom to those who ask for it. b. If wisdom to do what is right.
(3) a. Equity pleases the Lord Jesus. b. The Lord Jesus and me.
(4) a. All Christians must serve the Lord in equity. b. To serve in equity and all Christians.
Vocabulary words are taught by having the student underline the sentence that uses the word correctly, but the correct answer is almost laughably obvious. From 5th Grade Social Studies Pace 1049 (page 14):
(3) Describe means to tell what something is like.
a. Describe walked slowly home from his work.
b. Who can describe Heaven?
(4) Generous means being willing to share possessions.
a. My brother is generous and shares with me.
b. My father owns a white generous.
(6) Priest means one who speaks to God for others.
a. Looking at the stars, he saw a priest fall toward Earth.
b. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the priest in Jerusalem.
(7) Principle means a basic truth; a rule.
a. All men are sinners is a principle of life.
b. Did the principle give you a note.
In contrast, questions from the 5th Grade FSA Practice Test seem to require a deeper level of thinking:
Does ACE provide a high quality education or religious indoctrination? Would we allow the funding of a similarly designed Wiccan or Satanic school? Should schools that accept public funds for education be held to some sort of academic standard? Is the state fulfilling its “paramount duty” of providing a high quality education for all its students when it funds ACE curriculum?
According to ACE School of Tomorrow, their goals go well beyond academic results, believing “every child deserves a Christian education, it’s not a matter of preference, it’s a biblical mandate”:
“Bible believing churches have a responsibility from God to become involved in the full time training of the next generation. We must implant the philosophy and principles of God’s word into the hearts of today’s young people and thus into the philosophy of the culture. ACE is here to help. Christian schools are sowing the seeds of reformation. You can have a part in reaching the World for Christ, one Child at a time.”
In 2014, in response to a concern that Islamic fundamentalists were plotting to take over private schools in Britain, the BBC investigated the use of ACE curriculum in “fundamentalist” Christian schools. A former ACE student, Jonny Scaramanga, was interviewed, describing his experience as “horrendous.” Scaramanga now campaigns against the ACE curriculum and writes the blog Leaving Fundamentalism. In this interview with the BBC, Scaramanga, who spent 3 years in an ACE school, explains that he became clinically depressed and suicidal:
“The thing that I felt was that there was such a thing as a good education and although I didn’t know what that would look like because I hadn’t been to a normal secondary school, I was really confident that this wasn’t it.”
In the same interview, Arthur Roderick, who established Christian Education Europe, bringing ACE to Britain, defends corporal punishment by stating “Rebellion is the sin of witchcraft.”
The BBC investigation questioned whether ACE curriculum adequately prepared students for college and/or career (the goal of the Florida Standards):
James Williams, lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, went one step further and described ACE as “intellectual abuse”.
He said teachers were “arguing from a powerbase” and consequently able to use that authority to present to children something “that we know to be scientifically wrong and incorrect”.
“When you look at the ACE syllabus, it is definitely not a balanced view,” he added. “They are deliberately using material aimed at very young children – comic books, comic stories – in order to indoctrinate them.
“It leaves them [children] grossly unprepared for the real world. They have a view of society and people which is unrealistic, which doesn’t match or fit any of the norms of society.”
Article IX, section 1, of the Florida Constitution clearly states that the education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. Legislators have a paramount duty to assure that children attending public schools obtain a high quality education. Shouldn’t that assurance apply to all publicly funded students, regardless of education choice? Since his election as Governor, Jeb Bush has suggested that it is discrimination to hold disadvantaged children to anything but rigorous standards, calling it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Why, 20 years later, does Florida’s education policy encourage low income children to leave the rigorous standards of the public schools and attend schools with questionable academic standards?
We agree that parents should be involved participants in their child’s education. A parent’s choice regarding where to educate their child should be respected. Our concern is with how public funds are spent for education and how those dollars will be accounted for. Without voucher funding of almost $6,000/child, would these schools even exist? Should the state expect a certain level of academic quality in voucher funded schools? Currently, the Florida Department of Education allows voucher schools to “conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate,” which could lead to a lot of #accountabaloney.
Why have a stifling test-based accountability system for some students and virtually no standards or accountability for others?
Should parents’ choices be respected? Yes. Should diverted tax dollars pay for all of those choices? Not necessarily. Are the tax dollars being diverted to schools utilizing ACE curriculum being well spent? You decide.