Annie Waldman, writing for ProPublica, examines the curious fate of failing charter schools.

Public schools that don’t get higher test scores are closed or turned over to charter operators.

But what happens to failing charter schools?

They turn into voucher schools!

“This past June, Florida’s top education agency delivered a failing grade to the Orange Park Performing Arts Academy in suburban Jacksonville for the second year in a row. It designated the charter school for kindergarten through fifth grade as the worst public school in Clay County, and one of the lowest performing in the state.

“Two-thirds of the academy’s students failed the state exams last year, and only a third of them were making any academic progress at all. The school had had four principals in three years, and teacher turnover was high, too.

“My fourth grader was learning stuff that my second grader was learning — it shouldn’t be that way,” said Tanya Bullard, who moved her three daughters from the arts academy this past summer to a traditional public school. “The school has completely failed me and my children.”

“The district terminated the academy’s charter contract. Surprisingly, Orange Park didn’t shut down — and even found a way to stay on the public dime. It reopened last month as a private school charging $5,000 a year, below the $5,886 maximum that low-income students receive to attend the school of their choice under a state voucher program. Academy officials expect all of its students to pay tuition with the publicly backed coupons.

“Reverend Alesia Ford-Burse, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor who founded the academy, told ProPublica that the school deserves a second chance, because families love its dance and art lessons, which they otherwise couldn’t afford. “Kids are saying, ‘F or not, we’re staying,’” she said.

“While it’s widely known that private schools convert to charter status to take advantage of public dollars, more schools are now heading in the opposite direction. As voucher programs across the country proliferate, shuttered charter schools, like the Orange Park Performing Arts Academy, have begun to privatize in order to stay open with state assistance.”

Why convert from charter school to voucher school?

Voucher schools are less likely to have any state supervision or accountability than charter schools. If the accountability bar is low for charters, it is almost invisible for voucher schools.

“As private schools, the ex-charters are less accountable both to the government and the public. It can be nearly impossible to find out how well some of them are performing. About half of the voucher and voucher-like programs in the country require academic assessments of their students, but few states publish the complete test results, or use that data to hold schools accountable.

“While most states have provisions for closing low-quality charter schools, few, if any, have the power to shut down low-performing voucher schools…

“The type of voucher program that rescues failed charter schools like Orange Park in Florida may soon be replicated nationwide. Visiting a religious school in Miami last April, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the state’s approach as a possible model for a federal initiative.

“Typically, voucher programs are directly funded with taxpayer dollars. Florida’s largest program pursues a different strategy. Its “tax-credit scholarships” are backed by donations from corporations. They contribute to nonprofit organizations, which, in turn, distribute the money to the private schools. In exchange, the donors receive generous dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state. This subsidy indirectly shifts hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the state’s coffers to private schools. More than 100,000 students whose families meet the income eligibility requirements have received the tax-credit coupons this year.

“Of the nearly 2,900 private schools in Florida, over 1,730 participated in the tax-credit voucher program during 2016-17, according to the most recent state Department of Education data. On average, each school received about $300,000 last year.

“While more than two-thirds of these schools are religious, the roundabout funding approach protects the vouchers against legal challenges that they violate the separation of church and state. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, a teacher’s union, challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program.

“In an education budget proposal from May, DeVos detailed her voucher plans, pitching a $250 million plan to study and expand individual state initiatives. She has since suggested that the administration may also create a federal tax-credit voucher scheme through an impending tax overhaul.

“School choice advocates like DeVos have long contended that vouchers improve educational opportunities for low-income families. They reason that competition raises school quality, and that parents, given more options, will select the best school for their children.

“A growing body of research, though, casts doubt on this argument. It shows voucher-backed students may not be performing better than their public school counterparts, and may do worse.”

What has become clear is that the privatization movement is not about providing better education. Choice advocates no longer believe that they are saving “poor kids from failing public schools.” Typically the so-called “failing” public school is superior to the voucher school. It is about choice for the sake of choice. It is about distributing money to religious and for-profit groups, which creates a political base to sustain choice. It is about undermining public education.