Why so little accountability on Florida’s taxpayer funded school vouchers? | Editorial
Eligible students can use the money to buy big screen TVs and to pay for private golf lessons.
Pages from new guidelines detail how Florida families can spend school voucher money left over after a child’s private school tuition and fees have been paid. Allowable Items, which are supposed to have educational uses, include televisions, kayaks and individual trampolines.
Pages from new guidelines detail how Florida families can spend school voucher money left over after a child’s private school tuition and fees have been paid. Allowable Items, which are supposed to have educational uses, include televisions, kayaks and individual trampolines. [ SEAN KRISTOFF-JONES | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 7

Florida obviously has tax money to burn given the recent rollout of the school voucher program and the uneven treatment of the state’s 2.9 million public school students.

If a student is among the vast majority who attend a traditional brick and mortar public school, legislators seem to expect teachers and parents to dip into their own wallets to pay for classroom needs, including basics like pencils, paper and field trips. Now compare that to lawmakers’ ever-increasing generosity toward the 400,000 or so students who receive vouchers to attend private school or for home-schooling.

In addition to making it easier to get one of the vouchers — worth about $8,000 per student this fall — the Legislature has made it a lot easier for parents to spend some of the money on items with only a loose connection to traditional education. You say your child needs a kayak or paddleboard to do their homework? The state says go ahead and buy one. Heck, buy one of each.

How about a big-screen TV? Or golf and tennis lessons? Or admission to Disney World or Busch Gardens? The Legislature has deemed all to be excellent ideas and worthy of voucher money. Who knew Florida taxpayers were this generous?

“Every child in Florida deserves an enriching, quality education,’’ says Holly Bullard, chief strategy officer for the Florida Policy Institute, which has raised concerns about the cost of voucher expansion. “But is it fair to students in our public schools, whose teachers often pay out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, that taxpayer dollars are being spent on Disney passes and big-screen TVs for voucher families?’’

Following the rules in a 13-page purchasing guide published this summer, we took a look at what is allowed and how a student’s home-school classroom might be equipped.

  • $2,000 for “at home classroom furnishings.” A 55-inch TV falls under this category, as do indoor projectors and drop-down screens. So do more mundane items such as globes, atlases, desks and chairs.
  • $3,000 for physical education equipment. Foosball and air hockey tables, paddleboards, kayaks, skateboards and individual trampolines all count as PE equipment, but no one item can exceed $1,000. The rules draw the line at pool tables, golf carts and swimming pools — both in-ground and above-ground — so forget about using voucher money for them.
  • $500 is allowed for field trips, but only the student’s cost is covered. Admission to a Florida theme park such as Disney World is OK. An official at Step-Up for Students, which handles the bulk of the voucher programs, justified using voucher money by pointing to “all the different history and culture lessons available at Disney World.” Even Mickey Mouse blushed a little at that statement. And good to know that Disney World is apparently no longer “theme park non grata” with the state’s education leadership. Also eligible are “ticketed events (including plays, musicals, or orchestral performances),” which raises the question: Would a Taylor Swift Eras Tour ticket count?
  • $2,000 can be spent on electives, which are not limited to such 20th century things as foreign language or art lessons. In fact, they include not only cooking lessons but cooking supplies (including subscription kits that deliver food that can be cooked at home).

One voucher supporter said, “We need to stop thinking like it’s 1960 — that the only answer is four walls with traditional districts leading the charge.” Fine, but are these kinds of allowed purchases really what 21st century taxpayers should be on the hook for buying?

The guidelines point out that “other family members often use products purchased with scholarship funds. Consequently, funding for these multi-user items is prorated to only cover the student’s cost.” That’s good, but we wonder who is going to be keeping track to make sure that no one else is sneaking a peek at that 55-inch TV or taking an unauthorized turn at the foosball table.

This latest divide is in keeping with the contentious history of school vouchers in Florida, which were controversial even before then-Gov. Jeb Bush introduced them in 1999. Opponents say the program has always lacked accountability and is a drain on resources needed to support an underfunded public school system. Supporters say vouchers encourage innovation and provide public schools with competition.

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As for the new, much looser rules on voucher spending, supporters see it as a way to allow families to better customize their child’s education. And items like personal trampolines, treadmills and telescopes, they note, can only be purchased with money left over after a child’s basic educational expenses are covered.

It’s too bad the parents of the millions of students in public school classrooms don’t get the same opportunity. Or that their kids are treated like second-class citizens. Children that are home-schooled, for example, already have access to sports and other programs at nearby public schools. Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for their private tennis or golf lessons?

The lax attitude of lawmakers toward calls for more accountability doesn’t help. A spokesperson for the Senate Majority Office told the Tampa Bay Times that state senators who voted for the voucher expansion trust parents to use the money appropriately. That certainly isn’t the standard used when the state determines who deserves other government benefits. Can you imagine officials telling residents they need only ask in order to receive unemployment or food assistance benefits because the state trusts that they deserve it and will spend the money appropriately? We don’t. We bet you don’t, either.

It’s our tax dollars, not play money. Reasonable people agree on limits and on accountability. It should not be a free for all, and students receiving vouchers should have to show that they are learning and if they are not, their vouchers should be in jeopardy. A famous Republican once said we should “trust but verify.” Florida’s school voucher program could use some of that common sense.

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.