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  1. Opinion

Who should get Florida school vouchers? The answer is not everyone | Editorial

School vouchers may benefit poorer students. But not all private schools deserve them, and not all students should get them.

School vouchers may make sense to rescue a poor child from a failing public school. But private schools that accept vouchers should be just as accountable for the quality of the education they’re providing with taxpayer dollars — your dollars — as public schools. Whether religious or secular, any school that accepts public dollars must not discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. And school vouchers should be limited to poorer kids who need options, not well-off families who have plenty of them.

The bill (HB 7067) that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last week falls short on most of those measures. The bill offers a thin veneer of accountability by requiring private schools to administer and report standardized test results. But there is no penalty — the private school could score well below average and still retain its voucher eligibility. Traditional public schools are not allowed to simply document their failing results year after year and suffer no consequences. Private schools that accept vouchers should have to meet reasonable performance standards. A failing private school is no better than a failing public one.

The new law is silent on any questions of discrimination. The Legislature had a chance to get this right. In fact, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, sponsored SB 56, which would have banned private schools from accepting vouchers if they discriminated “based on the student’s race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” The bill died without a vote. The Legislature should right this wrong in the coming session.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that religious schools are entitled to the same taxpayer monies as other private schools. The decision was simple: If a state offers vouchers to private schools, it must include religious schools. Since the Legislature and governor are clearly happy to offer taxpayer dollars to private schools, it is imperative that an anti-discrimination provision passes this next session. Without it, more stories will arise like the one out of the Orlando area where a religious school accepted scholarship funds yet discriminated against LGBTQ youth and employees.

While vouchers can be a life line for economically deprived students, offering them to better-off families is bad policy and destructive to Florida’s public schools, where the vast majority of students are still educated. Under the new law, priority for vouchers goes to students whose families make $47,638 or less (for a family of four). Fair enough. But next in line are families who make $77,250 or less. And if money is still left over, families making up to $83,688 would be eligible. These families are not poor by any reasonable definition, nor are they without options. And provisions in the new law make it likely that those income ceilings will only rise. Eventually, the state will effectively have vouchers for all comers.

Dipping into state coffers to fund middle-class vouchers ultimately hurts the poor kids still attending underfunded traditional public schools. Yes, vouchers can help poorer students get a legitimate chance at a better education. But without proper safeguards and accountability and limits on income eligibility, this system will spin out of control and hurt not only public education, but many of the very children it purports to help.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news