Editorial: Education bill is expensive mistake

SCOTT KEELER    |    Times
Published Dec. 15, 2014

Extending private school tuition vouchers to the middle class should require a clear vote and thorough debate by the Florida Legislature. So should creating a significant new entitlement for disabled students. Yet on the final day of the legislative session, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz allowed these two controversial issues to be tucked into a 140-page catch-all education bill and approved with little discussion. If Gov. Rick Scott signs this bill into law, Floridians will pay for the Legislature's sins for years.

Buried in mammoth legislation, SB 850, is a bad idea that never had a hearing in the Senate until the final day of the session: opening the door to publicly financed, lightly regulated private school vouchers to middle class students — with still no guarantee taxpayers will get their money's worth.

First-time applicants for the so-called Corporate Income Tax Scholarship can earn up to 185 percent of poverty, or about $44,000 a year for a family of four, to qualify for a voucher equal to 80 percent of what the state spends on a public school student. Under the bill, families earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level — about $62,000 a year — could earn a half-voucher in 2016-17. The bill also would raise a voucher's value that school year to 82 percent of public school spending.

Supporters downplayed the change, focusing on provisions that partially address the lack of accountability in the voucher program. The bill would require better monitoring of the organizations that administer the voucher program and receive millions in public money in administrative fees.

Yet this legislation does nothing to ensure that the private schools that teach voucher students do their job. Private schools aren't required to have accreditation or meet state curriculum standards, for example. Under the bill, a handful of private schools — those where 51 percent of their students receive public vouchers — would be required to more fully disclose the results of standardized tests. But unlike public schools, they still would face no penalty for poor performance.

This continues the hypocrisy of the Republican-led Legislature that demands extraordinary accountability of public schools based on student performance on standardized tests but turns a blind eye when it comes to the millions of public dollars that flow to private schools.

Also concerning in this legislation is a new entitlement, funded with $18 million, for homeschooled or privately schooled students with significant disabilities. While giving parents more control in how the state spends money to address their child's disability has merit, lawmakers failed to fully vet this expansion and all but guaranteed future waiting lists and higher costs. For example, parents would be allowed to use state money to buy a Florida Prepaid Tuition Contract for college for their disabled child even though the state's only obligation to any student stops at high school.

There is merit in some of the many other ideas in SB 850, such as better access for high school students to professional technical training or college-level courses. But that does not make up for all the bad, unvetted ideas such as the expansion of vouchers. These provisions have the backing of the Republican legislative leadership and conservative groups, and it is naive to expect Scott to veto it. But a more independent governor who sincerely valued public education would never sign this big expensive mess into law.