'What real journalism looks like': Orlando Sentinel exposes Florida's $1 billion school voucher scam
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump listen to a student while touring a Florida voucher school in March as Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump look on (screengrab of Live Satellite News coverage of the photo-op)

The Orlando Sentinel is being praised for a months long investigation on Florida's school voucher program, inspecting fifty percent more schools than state education officials inspected in all of last year.

The newspapers three-part, Schools Without Rules expose on the state's nearly $1 billion tax credit scholarship program.

"That is what real journalism looks like — a team of journalists doing shoe-leather reporting, conducting the kind of inspections, investigations and interviews that even the state’s education officials don’t," Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell explained. "This little-regulated system needs an overhaul. And the world needs more real journalists."

Reporters Beth Kassab, Leslie Postal and Annie Martin reported that "private schools in Florida will collect nearly $1 billion in state-backed scholarships this year through a system so weakly regulated that some schools hire teachers without college degrees, hold classes in aging strip malls and falsify fire-safety and health records."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to visit any public schools during an August trip to Florida. In March, DeVos joined President Donald Trump in touring a voucher school.

"The number of children using the scholarship programs has tripled in the past decade to 140,000 students at nearly 2,000 private schools. Many of those schools, which are subject to little state oversight, are heavily reliant on the state scholarship programs to keep their doors open," the Sentinel found.

The Sentinal discovered an alarming lack of oversight.

"After Palm Bay Police began investigating principal Samuel Vidal Jr., who was accused last year of lifting the shirt of a 15-year-old student and putting his mouth on her breast, Vidal shut down his private Christian school," the Sentinel found. "But the police investigation didn’t stop Vidal, 41, from winning approval from the Florida Department of Education to open a new private school in Palm Bay and collect nearly $200,000 in state-backed scholarships. And even after Vidal was charged with felony lewd or lascivious molestation, prompting the state to pull scholarships from the second school, it approved yet another school this year with ties to Vidal."

Maxwell, who writes the Sentinel's "Taking Names" column, was openly disgusted by the response to the series by voucher supports.

"If voucher supporters actually cared about the safety and education of these children, they wouldn’t make excuses for all the problems exposed here. They wouldn’t attack the journalists who discovered them," Maxwell noted. "Whining that the media ignored swell schools to focus on problematic ones is like whining that the media ignore planes that fly safely to report on ones that crash."

After touring a voucher school with Secretary DeVos, President Trump said he wanted to expand the "great success" of Florida's program nationwide.

Read the entire Orlando Sentinel expose on Florida's Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Step Up for Students, which administers most of the scholarships.