The lessons taught at these schools come from three Christian publishing companies whose textbooks are popular on many of about 2,000 campuses that accept, and often depend on, nearly $1 billion in state scholarships, or vouchers.
At the Orlando Sentinel’s request, educators from Florida colleges and school districts reviewed textbooks and workbooks from these publishers, looking at elementary reading and math, middle school social studies and high school biology materials.
They found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions.
“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”
The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”
The books are rife with religious and political opinions on topics such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from white Europeans. Experts said that was particularly worrisome given that about 60 percent of scholarship students are black or Hispanic.
Books from all three publishers — Abeka, BJU Press and Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE — also offer easier academics compared with what Florida requires in its public schools, said the experts from UCF, the University of Florida, Rollins College and the Seminole and Volusia county school districts.
The Florida Department of Education does not track the curriculum used by the 140,000 students who attend private schools on state vouchers. In fact, Florida law prohibits the department from asking about or regulating academics at these schools.
The Sentinel surveyed the 151 private schools newly approved by the education department to take scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. Seventy-five of the schools provided information about their curriculum either on their websites or when contacted by phone, and 30 of those, or about 40 percent, reported Abeka, BJU or ACE was a part of their academic offerings.
In October, the Sentinel published its “Schools Without Rules” series that documented problems in some scholarship schools, including campuses that hired teachers without degrees and with criminal records, that forged fire and health inspection forms, and faced eviction midyear because they failed to pay their bills. Reporters visited 35 Central Florida private schools for that series and found 65 percent used one of the three Christian curricula.
Several private schools that use the curricula defend the texts, including Downey Christian School in east Orange County, which uses all three. More than 90 percent of Downey’s 275 students rely on state scholarships to pay tuition.
Director Tim Dees said Abeka provides good phonics and cursive writing lessons for young students; ACE, with its self-paced lessons, helps those who are behind; and BJU, often called Bob Jones for its affiliation with Bob Jones University, offers challenging lessons for high school students.
He said parents who choose the school want church lessons to be part of their children’s education.
The school’s science classes touch on evolution so students aren’t “sheltered in this little bubble,” he said, but administrators like textbooks that mostly teach what the Bible says.
“We believe our way is correct,” he said. “We focus on creationism because that’s what we believe.”
Neither ACE nor BJU responded to requests for comment. In an email, an Abeka official, Brent Phillips, declined to discuss the materials but wrote, “We are confident that our content is accurate, age appropriate, and academically rigorous” and teaches students based on “our traditional, Christian philosophy of education.”
The scholarships that private schools may use to purchase these academic materials are paid for either directly by the state or with tax credits — money diverted from the state budget by corporations that make scholarship donations and then write off an equivalent amount from their state tax bills. The scholarships are available to students from low-income families or to those with disabilities, and their parents are free to enroll them in any private school that accepts the state-backed vouchers.
Nearly 80 percent of scholarship students attend religious schools, and most of those institutions are Christian. About 16 percent of the scholarship schools are Catholic, and those schools use their own curriculum as do some other schools including those that are Islamic or Jewish (combined they make up about 5 percent of the schools) and those without religious affiliation.
With few exceptions, the Christian texts the Sentinel had reviewed focus on simple reading passages, basic math and repetitive activities, such as copying sentences, with little to demand students think critically, the experts said.
ACE is the most troubling of the three, they said. Students using ACE work alone for most of the day, completing workbooks in every subject — up to 70 workbooks a year — with little instruction from teachers or interaction with classmates. The materials are full of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, with answers easily found a few pages away.
A reading workbook from ACE, for example, shows third graders a sketch of an apple and a banana and asks them to note which was the apple. Students are then to color that and other pictures and be graded on the coloring activities.
In public schools, third grade is when Florida demands students demonstrate their literacy skills on a state reading test. A sample section from that exam shows students had to read two passages, then answer questions, some in full sentences. Under state law, third graders who score very poorly on that Florida Standards Assessments reading exam face being held back.
Scholarship students are not required to take the state exams.
At Downey Christian, the school views itself as successful because most graduates go to college, Dees said, with 19 of 23 students last year continuing their education. “They feel that they’ve been well prepared,” he said.
Mitchell Robbins, a 2012 graduate of Countryside Christian School in Gainesville, which uses ACE, agreed.
He is now working on a graduate degree in physical therapy at the University of Florida. He went from Countryside to Santa Fe College and then transferred to UF to finish his four-year degree. In his view, his high school prepared him well for college with one exception: Countryside’s science classes didn’t offer labs so when he started college, he was intimidated by those hands-on lessons.
But, he added, “It was easy to overcome that because I had such an extensive background in the theory.”
At Countryside Christian, where more than 70 percent of its about 300 students are using state scholarships this year, the ACE curriculum supports the values the school believes are important, CEO Bill Keith said.
Other schools teach “revisionist” history, he added, promoting Malcolm X and communism.
Questions about the academic rigor of the Christian textbooks, widely used by private schools across the country, are not new.
More than a decade ago, educators with the University of California decided not to recognize some credits from students whose high school courses were based on Abeka or BJU textbooks, saying they did not cover topics students needed to be ready for college. The Association of Christian Schools International sued the university system in 2006 over that decision. A California court ruled in the universities’ favor in 2008.
Good teachers can offer good academics, even if the textbook is subpar, said the experts who reviewed materials for the newspaper, supplementing with other materials and classroom activities.
But ACE is worrisome, they said, because it relies on its workbooks and, therefore, leaves little room for those teacher-based improvements.
Several Central Florida schools that use ACE said one of the curriculum’s selling points is that it works no matter the skill of the teachers — and even if they lack college degrees.
In public schools, Florida teachers need a bachelor’s degree and passing scores on state certification exams, but there are no required teacher credentials for private schools that accept state scholarships.
“Honestly, with our curriculum … a certified teacher is not required,” Natasha Griffin, district superintendent of Esther’s School, which has seven campuses in Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel last year.
At Esther’s School in Kissimmee, 11 of 18 teachers lacked college degrees last year, according to a document Griffin sent to the education department. For two of them, 11th grade was their highest educational level. Almost all of the school’s nearly 60 students are on state scholarships this year.
From all the publishers, the social studies texts seem intent on writing American history “from God’s point of view,” as interpreted through a conservative Protestant lens, said Christopher Busey, an education professor at UF, who reviewed the materials. “I believe in God. I consider myself a Christian and this is not my point of view,” he added.
The texts focus on white men, ignore women and sometimes insult people from Africa, Asia and Latin America, worrisome given the students using them in Florida. “You’re sending a dangerous message to these students, in particular, as if they’re punished in their own history,” he said.
Historically, that has been a problem with many textbooks, including those used in public schools, but he said the Christian ones were far worse than others he’d reviewed.
The BJU text said “God provided” North America as a place for the Protestant church to flourish, keeping Catholics to Central America and South America.
An ACE workbook notes Native Americans were forced off their lands but then blames them for becoming “dependent on their government.” The Abeka book said in a section on “evangelizing black Americans” that “the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior.”
The most striking feature of the biology books is their focused argument against evolution, a fundamental building block of modern biology, the experts said.
“Evolution explains everything,” said Bayer, the UCF educator.
The books from the three publishers attack a key part of science, she said, and the work of scientists.
The BJU text said Christians must reject Charles Darwin’s teaching, which it argues were tied to Nazi Germany. Abeka calls evolution a “retreat from science.”
An ACE workbook tells students that “Bible passages, rock art and ancient evidence seem to describe man’s accounts of living dinosaurs,” which fits with God creating all life on the planet in six days.
That book also claims that Noah likely took small, or baby, dinosaurs onto his ark and that the Loch Ness Monster likely was real, perhaps a plesiosaur — a marine reptile that scientists say became extinct at the same time as dinosaurs.
“That was just plain-old, misguided, bad, horrible science, talking about dinosaurs and humans living together,” said Brandon Haught, a science teacher at University High School in Volusia and a member of the advocacy group Florida Citizens for Science, who also reviewed the materials.
He said all the texts, compared with what he uses in his public high school, seemed to downplay “actually doing some science.” They also disregard a key point of science — that not all answers are known, that there are more discoveries to be had.
The math and reading texts fall short compared with the books used in public schools, too, the experts said. The BJU math book was well done, but most of the math texts focus heavily on teaching rules and computational methods but do little to build students’ understanding of the concepts needed to really understand the subject, said Jie Yu, an assistant professor of education at Rollins College.
The reading texts include “simple kid stories” that are appropriate but not challenging, said Patricia Goldman, language arts specialist for Seminole public schools. The stories, and accompanying questions, lack the complexity the state expects for literary lessons in public schools, she added.
“There’s really not a lot of heavy thinking,” she said.