Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to redefine public education in Florida is coming into sharper focus.
First: Appoint three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court who are expected to be more receptive to spending public money on private school tuition.
Second: Distract voters by proposing to spend more money on performance bonuses for teachers (who really need salary increases) and to raise per student spending in public schools (anything would be an improvement).
Third: Propose spending general tax dollars on private school vouchers and invite the Supreme Court’s new majority to allow it by overturning a prior court decision.
The governor’s proposal to create a new private school voucher program for students from low-income families and pay for it directly with tax money comes as no surprise. It also is no surprise that DeSantis’ announcement was praised by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the father of school vouchers in Florida, and by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who promotes school choice and has pushed for a federal tax credit for a voucher-like program.
What is remarkable is the rhetoric coming from the governor. DeSantis actually stood at a private school Friday in Orlando and said, “If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education.’’
That is absurd. It redefines the meaning of public education in Florida and the nation. It also flies in the face of the Florida Constitution: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools...’’
Exactly where does the state Constitution say the governor and the Florida Legislature can meet that “paramount duty’’ by diverting public tax dollars to private religious schools?
Here’s another disingenuous quote from DeSantis: “We have parents who are lining up for a tax credit scholarship. They would not do that if the program was not succeeding.’’
Floridians have no idea if private schools are succeeding, because private schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools. What’s happening is the state is not succeeding at providing quality public schools in too many neighborhoods. This state ranks among the bottom 10 states in the nation in per student spending and in teacher pay. Former Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature starved school districts of money for maintenance and construction while siphoning off millions for charter schools, which are public but privately operated. Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran called teacher unions “evil’’ -- and he is now DeSantis’ handpicked state education commissioner.
The reality is while the tax credit program pays for private school tuition for 100,000 students, there are 2.8 million students in public schools. There are roughly 14,000 students on the waiting list for tax credit scholarships, but part of the reason for the waiting list is Step Up For Students, the main funding organization, has had difficulty recruiting enough businesses to participate. Meanwhile, voters in county after county last year approved referendums to raise tax money to invest in their public schools -- including in Hillsborough.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court found unconstitutional Bush’s “Opportunity Scholarship,’’ which used tax money to pay for private school tuition for students from low-performing public schools. The tax credit scholarships for students from low-income families was designed to circumvent that opinion. In 2019, DeSantis has replaced three of the five justices who signed the 2006 opinion and proposed the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship.’’
Fortunately, the Florida Constitution has not changed. Neither has the definition of public education, no matter what the governor says.