School vouchers are here to stay. The Republican-majority Legislature will make sure of that, and inevitable Democratic cries that this is slowly strangling public education will fall on deaf ears. So the real question turns on accountability and eligibility.
This editorial board has agreed that vouchers can make sense to rescue a poor child from a failing public school. Why shouldn’t lower-income parents have options that well-off families take for granted? We have also seen the value of vouchers for students with special needs, whose parents often have to seek opportunity outside of traditional public schools.
HB 1, “an act relating to school choice,” championed by Florida House Speaker Paul Renner would go far beyond that, making every K-12 student potentially eligible for one. It’s backed by an effective slogan: “Your Kids, Your Choice.” Hard to argue with the sentiment.
But here’s another thing it’s hard to argue with: It’s still the taxpayers’ money. And taxpayers should require adequate accountability that the money will be spent wisely. Parents may be the best judge of their children’s educational needs, but taxpayers — and that includes parents — are the best stewards of how their hard-earned dollars are doled out. Their elected leaders should remember that.
HB 1 would allow vouchers equal to the per-student funding in a public school — currently about $8,216 per year — not just for students going to private school but for those who are home schooled. In fact, in addition to other voucher students, 10,000 home-schooled students would be eligible this fall and another 20,000 each of the next three years — and then no cap at all. Overall priority for vouchers would go to families with incomes up to 185% of the federal poverty level (which is $55,500 plus $9,509 for each additional family member), and students in foster care would remain at the front of the line. But in the end, the bill sets no income caps. The money would be distributed through state-funded education savings accounts.
We have long argued that private schools accepting vouchers should be just as accountable for the quality of the education they’re providing with taxpayer dollars as public schools. A lot of money is in play. The House staff analysis puts the cost of HB 1 as “indeterminate,” but think of that as a synonym for “expensive.” The progressive Florida Policy Institute estimates the voucher bill could cost the state nearly $4 billion a year within five years.
It’s not just about money. Whether religious or secular, any school that accepts public dollars must not discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Schools that accept vouchers should have to prove not only that their students are succeeding based on reasonable measures such as norm-referenced standardized tests but should face penalties — including revocation of voucher eligibility — if they aren’t. Even home-schooling parents should have to demonstrate that their children are succeeding. Accepting tax money for education brings oversight in a public school, in a private school and, yes, in a home. Florida has a vested interest in making sure that its money is well spent and that its students are well educated no matter where they are schooled. The students are the parents’ children, but they are also Florida’s future. We all have a stake in that.
Reasonable people can argue about where to draw income cut-offs for voucher eligibility, but why should taxpayers fund private education for well-off parents who can easily afford it?
Before the Legislature finishes its business this spring, there is little doubt that vouchers will expand. But prudent lawmakers should have accountability and appropriate eligibility as the top two questions in mind as they debate this bill and the amendments sure to come.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.