Rubio's stale school plan

Published Feb. 22, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio has so much star power at the moment his teeth seem to gleam when he smiles. With his Cuban-American heritage and youthful visage Rubio was the natural choice to deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. But his performance illustrates a point that Republicans don't seem to get: A new face doesn't improve bankrupt ideas.

One of those ideas is the undermining of public schools. Under the guise of helping lower-income parents, Rubio is offering the Educational Opportunities Act to move students from public to private schools, most of which are church-affiliated, at taxpayer expense. To get around church-state separation problems his plan would give taxpayers dollar-for-dollar federal tax credits for "donating" money to designated scholarship funds that would pay for private school education. Some would call that money laundering.

This is a tea partier's dream come true. It starves the federal treasury of tax revenue, funnels children into religious indoctrination, erodes support for public schools by having parents abandon them and, perhaps sweetest of all, harms all those progressives who have chosen to be public school teachers as well as their unions.

Rubio, like his fellow Republicans, would transform public education from a process where students collectively learn from secular teachers about civic duty and virtue and turn it into a private commodity where education is faith-based and teachers must be of a certain religion to get a job.

States like Florida, Georgia and Arizona, where Republicans dominate state legislatures, already have similar tax-credit voucher programs. The initiative emanates from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate and Koch brothers-funded enterprise where craven ideas germinate and spread. Other ALEC specialties are "stand your ground" laws and measures to make it harder for people to vote.

In Georgia's scandal-plagued tax-credit scholarship program, parents were gaming the system to get a tax write-off for their own child's tuition. And lately it has come out that dozens of church-affiliated schools that receive scholarship money bar gays. Arizona's low-income scholarship program spawned headlines like "Tuition aid eludes needy" in the Arizona Republic.

In Florida, voters dislike the idea of taxpayer-funded vouchers going to religious schools so much they rejected a constitutional amendment in the last election that could have opened the door even wider to them.

Yet despite this antipathy the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program has grown by leaps since it was established in 2001, more than tripling in size largely due to Republican dominance in Tallahassee. Last year, $229 million in corporate taxes was diverted from the state treasury into private scholarship funds. About 83 percent of the approximately 50,000 students using the scholarships attend religious schools.

At the Kingsway Christian Academy in Orange County, the school gets about $1.4 million in state scholarships that fund 318 out of its 408 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The school uses the A Beka Book series that intersperses religious dogma into its science curriculum, teaching biblical creationism and denouncing as heretical the evolution theory of man's origin.

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This is Rubio's idea for bringing a competitive edge to the nation? No wonder he had trouble with how old the Earth is.

Rubio's proposed legislation would grant individuals a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit of up to $4,500 for donating to a nonprofit "Scholarship Granting Organization." For corporations, the tax credit shoots up to $100,000. Families qualify for the scholarships if they earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line, currently $58,875 for a family of four. Not exactly targeted solely to the poorest families.

Meanwhile, experience suggests there is no big spike in student achievement. An extensive 2010 evaluation of the D.C. scholarship program — one that Rubio points to as a model of success — found that scholarship students in private school scored about the same in reading and math as their counterparts in public schools. No matter, because the goal is less about enhancing education than diminishing public schools.

It's easy to see why Rubio is the Republican fresh face. Too bad his ideas are retreads, and dangerous ones at that.