1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: Private schools get state taxes no questions asked. Public schools? Not so much

Published Jan. 21, 2016

God bless 'em, the parents came to fight.

They came to fight the status quo. They came to fight for their children.

They marched in Tallahassee on Tuesday carrying signs, wearing neon T-shirts and wielding passion for a tax credit program that helps fund private schools.

They see these vouchers as a chance for a better education and, in many cases, a path for their children to rise out of a lower economic station in life.

Mostly, they came to ask a teachers union to drop a lawsuit that challenges the legality of this scholarship-style program.

Their message was that private and public schools can peacefully co-exist while both using taxpayer funds. Essentially, they said it doesn't have to be an either/or question.

And they're right.

Except your state Legislature has turned it into that kind of a fight.

Let me explain:

For the better part of the past two decades, Florida leaders have micromanaged the public school system into a state of chaos. Parents are screaming, teachers are quitting and students continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in performance.

And, still, legislators want to tell local school districts what books to buy, what films to show, what clothes students should wear and what tests should be given.

Yet, when it comes to private schools, the Legislature turns a blind eye.

Of course, you could argue that the private schools have every right to operate independent of state interference. Except the scholarship program means that, instead of going to Tallahassee, tax dollars are going directly to these churches and private companies.

And that means lawmakers are ignoring all their own rhetoric when it comes to accountability.

Here's another way of looking at it:

In recent years, the state has cracked down on unemployment benefits. Recipients have to endure an onerous process just to get in the system and then provide proof they are searching for a job to qualify for any payments.

Likewise, the food assistance program has rules about what types of products can be purchased as well as a requirement that some enrollees either have a job, be enrolled in training or volunteer 20 hours a week.

Basically, when it comes to poor people, the state is saying it wants to make danged sure folks are being responsible before any taxpayer money is handed over.

And yet private schools essentially get a free ride?

One of the keys to the lawsuit challenging the tax credit program is a phrase in the state Constitution that requires a "uniform'' education system. And right now there is no uniformity. It's impossible to look at public and private schools and not recognize that one is overburdened with rules, while the other gets free rein.

Just to point it out again, private institutions usually get that leeway. If a private school wants to emphasize religion over science, it has that right. If it wants to hire teachers who are not certified or college graduates, it has that right.

But when tax money is involved, those rights begin to shrink. Or at least they should.

The problem is Florida's leaders are shirking their responsibility. They are handing money over to private groups and trusting them to spend it wisely.

What's worse is they have made public schools so unappealing to so many residents that they are essentially chasing them toward charters and private schools.

Instead of producing a "uniform'' system of education, Florida is competing with itself, and practically rigging the game in favor of private schools.

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