The Florida Legislature is at it again. Another legislative session starts with a push to expand the use of vouchers for students to attend private, religious and for-profit schools.
Does the state have so much money that it can fully fund our public education system, meet our other needs and then throw money at those wanting to send their children to private schools using tax dollars? The answer is no.
We don't fund education adequately. We don't give our teachers the raises they deserve; we occasionally throw one-time bonuses at them.
We haven't funded as intended the constitutional amendment to limit class sizes, which requires a considerable cash infusion. We have a worsening teacher shortage for these and other reasons, including an overemphasis on testing and a lack of flexibility to use innovative teaching methods.
Until now, the persistent efforts to expand vouchers were targeted. First came the McKay scholarships to assist students with disabilities. Next came the "Opportunity Scholarships" using corporate donations—swapped for tax credits—to give vouchers to low-income families. These were deemed constitutional due to being structured so tax dollars were not going directly to the voucher.
Corporate donations to that program are not as high as targeted, so the Legislature is attempting to create a new voucher program directly using tax dollars to reach more of these low-income families as defined by 260 percent of the federal poverty level—about $65,000 for a family of four.
This is the boldest move so far.
According to Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution: "The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. … Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education. ..."
Why would legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis think the new program could pass constitutional scrutiny with tax dollars going directly to religious, private or for-profit schools?
Perhaps it's because the governor replaced three state Supreme Court justices who reached the mandatory retirement age. His conservative nominees are likely to view vouchers and separation of church and state differently than the more moderate or liberal justices they replaced.
Vouchers can be used to help a public school system with highly specialized needs they can't meet.
It's easy to package school choice as a positive policy. What parent wouldn't like the option of taking tax dollars to send their kids to private school?
But vouchers do have a negative effect on the public school system that our Constitution requires. Every dollar that goes to a voucher is one less dollar that can be used toward a quality education in our chronically underfunded public schools.
Those pushing vouchers are not being honest with us.
They claim parents need a choice, but there is choice within our public schools—magnets, career academies, charters, international baccalaureate programs and others that vary by school district.
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Voucher proponents claim education outcomes are better for those students using vouchers, but studies do not bear out that conclusively.
They claim private schools use innovative teaching methods, yet the Legislature prevents public schools from having the flexibility to do the same.
Public schools have requirements that private schools do not, such as mandated testing, teacher credentials and accountability measures. Public schools must take students that show up, unlike private schools that can pick and choose and close out enrollment when their classes are filled.
Voucher proponents don't work collaboratively with public educators but instead use their political clout to push through voucher expansion. This forms a basis for skepticism and cynicism.
There is big money involved. Last year's K-12 education budget for 2.6 million students was $14.7 billion. Proponents could be primarily focused on diverting money to private interests by outsourcing a government service in order to turn a profit.
Their objective also could be to control the curriculum to incorporate their religious and political beliefs. Legislators often try and fail to force these religious and social beliefs into our public schools.
Little by little, further efforts are made to remove students and the education dollars that follow them from our public schools.
What's the end game?
Some fear it is to do away with public schools through total privatization for profit and control. We can't let that happen.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.