Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Education

John Romano: Another nail in the coffin of public schools

Call me picky, but here's what I don't understand:

If we're going to circumvent the Florida Constitution, ignore the state Supreme Court, and funnel tax dollars to churches, shouldn't accountability be a larger part of the equation? You know, if only to give the appearance of fiscal responsibility?

Because Will Weatherford's plan to radically expand the school voucher system sounds curiously like the kind of entitlement he deplores when it comes to health care.

No longer content to limit vouchers to poor families and confine the money source to corporate tax credits, the state House speaker now proposes to expand the pool of eligible students and divert sales tax funds to support them.

Or, to put it another way, to continue a systematic decimation of Florida public schools.

In case you need a refresher, the Jeb Bush voucher system allows students to leave struggling schools and apply nearly $5,000 in tax money to pay for private school. More than 80 percent end up at religious-based schools.

Now, in some ways, this is a noble endeavor because it gives a lot of minorities an alternative. From their vantage point, it's a grand idea.

From every other point of view, there are gaping, glaring, potentially calamitous issues. For starters, every dollar that goes to private schools is a dollar not spent on public schools. Even without Weatherford's proposed expansion, the tax money being diverted is expected to exceed $350 million next year.

Coupled with more than $1 billion being shipped off to charter schools, that's a crippling budget drain on a system that was already 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the Census.

In essence, we're purposely starving our own public schools.

Making matters worse, our Legislature is obsessed with public school accountability. Students are held back, teachers evaluated and schools graded based on a slavish devotion to FCAT testing. And amid the current curriculum upheaval, the education commissioner will not suspend school grading for even one year because she says it's too darned important.

Yet tax dollars flow into private schools with little attention to accountability. Less than 10 percent of those schools are even required to divulge scores from FCAT-style tests, and there are no defined consequences for subpar results. As for curriculum and standards? Private schools are free to treat evolution as some goofy scientific theory.

Senate President Don Gaetz wants more accountability, but the House has always loathed that idea.

Most galling of all is that the Florida Supreme Court ruled vouchers violated the state's constitution in 2006 and ever since, the Legislature has been passing laws to duck, finesse, evade and weasel out of fiduciary responsibilities.

"The state, as far as I'm concerned, is in violation of the Constitution,'' said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who fought vouchers as a legislator in 2006. "Why aren't we improving our schools instead of handing tax dollars to private schools?''

Sadly, we are used to hypocrisy from our leaders in Tallahassee. But this is bold even for them. This is hypocrisy on a grand, in-your-face and to-heck-with-the-law level.

If we demand accountability in public schools, then private schools should have to accept the exact same level of scrutiny if given public funds.

You can't have it both ways.

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