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Magical thinking on education, vouchers

This week's summit — as sponsors call it — of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education might seem like a mere "school choice" pep rally with a bonus excursion to the Magic Kingdom, but it's happening at a time when the Legislature has decimated school funding. Moreover, this is an election year.

Headliners at the conference at the Disney World Contemporary Resort include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a slew of usual suspects from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, plus Barbara Bush and state Sen. Dan Webster, whose valedictory piece of legislation was a resolution instructing Floridians to pray away hurricanes on June 1.

And, of course, Jeb Bush himself.

Three of the nine amendments Floridians will vote on this November will determine the course of public education in this state. Amendment 5 gets rid of local property taxes designated for schools, requiring the Legislature to raise sales taxes or perform some other voodoo economics to make up the funding gap. Amendments 7 and 9 would demolish Florida's separation of church and state and repeal the part of the Constitution that calls for a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education." The state would simply be obligated to provide education "fulfilled at a minimum and not exclusively" by public schools.

Out of office ain't out of power — Amendments 7 and 9 come courtesy of Jeb Bush and his band of true believers.

Some history: While he was governor, Jeb Bush drove an ideological tank through Florida's schoolyards, taking command of education from pre-K to postgrad, imposing the FCAT, penalizing "failing" schools, declaring war on the teachers' unions and forcing vouchers upon the state.

But Florida courts deemed his "Opportunity Scholarships" unconstitutional on the grounds that they violate the separation of church and state, channeling taxpayer money to religious schools and because they undermined the requirement to have a uniform public education system. When he left office in 2007, it looked like Jeb Bush had lost.

But if at first you don't succeed, start your own right wing think tank. Raise money. Work with allies in Florida's Republican oligarchy to stack the relevant boards and commissions with your supporters. If vouchers are unconstitutional, then change the Constitution.

Instead of working through the elected Legislature, voucher proponents turned to the unelected Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. The commission, a 25-member panel made up of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, appears only every 20 years. It is charged with examining the state's budget structure and coming up with new ways to find the money to address the state's needs.

Installed on this year's commission were a few token Democrats, such as former Sen. Les Miller and former FSU president and American Bar Association president Sandy D'Alemberte, but mostly trusty conservatives like former House Speaker Allan Bense and Bush administration retreads Brian Yablonski and Greg Turbeville, among others. The commission's chief Bush cheerleader was, however, Patricia Levesque, Jeb's former deputy chief of staff and executive director of his foundation.

Levesque is hostile to public education. She's a graduate of Bob Jones, the Talibanesque South Carolina college where mingling between the genders is policed, dancing is verboten and interracial dating was banned until 2000. But like her boss and his allies, Levesque couches her educational radicalism in the kinder, gentler, more politic language of "reform," "options" and "competition." She and other voucher advocates are smart enough to game the system. Amendment 9, the one that guts the constitutional imperative to provide a "high quality" education in favor of minimal funding for schools, also orders that 65 percent of school funding go toward "classroom instruction."

Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, points out that most schools already spend 65 percent or more of their budgets on instruction, and the amendment language is just a "Trojan horse" to sneak vouchers inside our education system. "They had to obfuscate the purposes of both Amendments 7 and 9. Most people don't want vouchers."

Indeed, a recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that only 38 percent would approve a vouchers-only amendment. But if you throw in the spurious "65 percent solution," 63 percent of voters would say yes. Bushites on the commission are shocked! shocked! at accusations of sneaky tactics. Greg Turbeville, who proposed Amendment 9, says that since it deals with both spending and policy, "It made perfect sense to combine the two."

Now, you may be wondering why a commission charged by the Constitution to periodically examine "the tax structure," assess revenue sources and figure out the state's fiscal needs, is fooling around with education policy. Levesque and Turbeville argue that since education is a huge part of the Florida budget, education is fair game for the commission. "School spending is well within the realm of the budget commission," says Turbeville.

Dexter Douglass, the well-known Tallahassee lawyer, constitutional expert, and former general counsel to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, begs to differ: "They don't have authority to do what they did." The Florida Education Association concurs. It has filed a lawsuit contending that the commission overreached in its attempts to do an end run around both the courts and the legislative process.

But however the legal challenge shakes out, however the vote goes in November, the problem remains what to do with Florida's increasingly stressed, grievously impoverished schools. Jeb Bush argues that parents should be able to remove their children from bad schools and use state money to send them to private or parochial institutions. In a May 6 opinion piece for the Times, the former governor claimed that with vouchers "all schools got better."

This is magical (perhaps "ideological" is a better word) thinking. Taking money away from one of the worst-funded school systems in the nation to feed private schools — schools which do not have to test their students, administer the FCAT, or meet minimum standards, schools which are not accountable to the taxpayers whose money they spend — is hardly a prescription for improvement. We've had a strong separation of church and state since 1838; dissolving that opens up not so much a can of worms as the whole worm farm.

The Bushite argument goes, don't worry, the Legislature will continue to fund public schools — sort of. These are the same people who said they'd "hold education harmless" this year, then turned around and cut $891-million. Dexter Douglass isn't buying it: "Jeb Bush set out to destroy public education in Florida." Given his determination to shift public money to private institutions, it sure begins to look like that.

Diane Roberts, a former member of the Times editorial board, is professor of English at Florida State University.

Magical thinking on education, vouchers 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:22am]
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