Two years after Gov. Jeb Bush insisted on a voucher plan he said was essential to spur improvement in Florida public schools, we are now left with the corporate flag-waving of Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. He believes taxpayers need to subsidize children in private schools not because the education would necessarily be better or because their public schools are failing, but because: "It's un-American for us not to partner with private enterprise out there." Heeding such advice, the state Senate on Thursday joined the House in approving a corporate tax break aimed at supplying vouchers to potentially hundreds of thousands of students.
So this is where the school voucher game is headed in Florida.
Bush began this debate in 1999. Fresh off an election victory in which he tried to say little about vouchers, he then told Republican lawmakers that school vouchers were his "No. 1 priority." Under his A+ Plan, though, the vouchers were to be used to encourage the public schools to get better. He would grade every school in Florida, based on how well they performed on standardized tests, and then he would offer vouchers to students whose schools didn't measure up. He said he didn't want to issue many vouchers, because each voucher would indicate that a public school had failed.
Well, a funny thing has happened. Many of the schools are improving their scores on standardized tests. All 78 schools that had been labeled as failing in 1999 improved their test scores and were deemed to be passing in 2000. Such news should serve as a cause for celebration in a Legislature that had prescribed such scores as a measurement for success, but the political rhetoric remains unchanged. Of his new voucher plan, Pruitt said: "This is a lifeboat for those families, for those children, who feel they are sinking under the existing established education system." Said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg: "When you have schools where you don't have a piece of glass that isn't boarded over and they have drills in case you hear gunfire, why would you not help that person escape?"
Escape? Just last summer, Bush was beaming over the latest test scores from public schools. "So the system works," he said then. "The threat of the opportunity scholarships, I think, refocused school districts."
Now the Legislature seems ready to send Bush a bill that arguably undercuts his own A+ Plan. In this case, the vouchers would be given to poor students without regard to how well their public school is performing. (Like the current voucher plan, it also would make no attempt to gauge whether the resulting private school education is any better.) They offer no incentive, or disincentive, for the public schools to improve.
The House version (HB 271) would allow up to $1-billion in tax money to be siphoned off for vouchers for low-income students (roughly half the students in the Tampa Bay region would qualify). They would come in the form of a dollar-for-dollar corporate tax break for private school scholarships. The Senate version, mercifully, limits the amount to $50-million. In both cases, though, the legislative sponsors make the beguiling argument that their plan would save money. Yes, the individual voucher limit would be less than the average amount spent on public school students, but the elimination of a few students from a public school classroom won't necessarily reduce the overall cost _ and the vouchers could be given to students who already are in private schools. Why do you think John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman who has donated money for private school vouchers, is so actively supporting it?
Under the current A+ Plan, lawmakers can at least pretend that vouchers are designed to improve the public schools. But the frenzied rush to hand out more vouchers _ through dollar-for-dollar tax breaks, to overcrowded schools, to disabled students _ reveals an entirely different motive. This is not so much about making public schools better as it is about helping, as Sen. Pruitt put it, "private enterprise." There's nothing wrong with helping private enterprise, but, so far as public education goes, this tax credit is a fraud.