It is clearer than ever that Republicans intend to mount a frontal assault next year on Florida's public schools. Legislators show no interest in building consensus on efforts to abolish teacher tenure and create a merit pay system. Gov.-elect Rick Scott also pledges to slash school property taxes even as declining property values and tax revenues have forced deep spending cuts in education. But those misguided approaches are small potatoes compared with their pursuit of a radical plan to give all students tuition vouchers.
In Scott's fuzzy vision, every parent would be given public education money to spend on "whatever education system they believe in, whether it's this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school. …'' It is not an original idea. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman began pitching tuition vouchers for everyone more than 50 years ago. And Scott is working with the Foundation for Florida's Future that was created by former Gov. Jeb Bush — the self-anointed education czar who brought Florida tuition vouchers, school letter grades based on standardized tests and other "reforms'' that overreached and underdelivered.
Now some Republicans are referring to universal vouchers as education savings accounts. Regardless of the packaging, this approach remains fatally flawed in at least three areas:
The Florida Constitution. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Bush-inspired Opportunity Scholarships, which were tuition vouchers to be given to students in failing public schools. The 2006 court opinion found those vouchers violated a constitutional requirement for a "uniform system of free public schools.'' The high court was silent on another constitutional provision that bars state money from going to religious institutions, which a lower appellate court cited. Two existing voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit voucher for students from low-income families and the McKay Scholarship voucher for disabled students, are similarly flawed but have yet to be legally tested.
Tax policy. It is unclear how much universal vouchers would cost the state and how they would be financed. Taking a portion of the per student funding for public schools and allowing families to spend that amount as they wish would not leave enough money for public education. And presumably, the hundreds of thousands of students already in private schools would receive public money as well.
The state already faces a budget deficit of more than $2.5 billion. On top of that, Scott wants to cut school property taxes 19 percent and eliminate the corporate tax. That would be the same corporate tax that companies can avoid paying now by earmarking the money for vouchers. How does this possibly add up?
Education policy. Some voucher advocates have endorsed more accountability for private schools, but it is not as vigorous or as uniform as the system imposed on public schools. An independent study last year found students in the corporate tax credit voucher program performed no better or worse academically than voucher-eligible students who chose to stay in public schools. And Pinellas County abandoned broad school choice in the public schools because it was so expensive and difficult to manage.
Republicans have tightened their grip on Tallahassee and tolerate little dissent. As they flesh out their education plans, it will be up to families, teachers and other voices outside the state capital to raise concerns, ask questions and demand answers.