Romney's divisive play for vouchers

Published June 10, 2012

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wants to have it both ways. He says his school choice proposal would use federal dollars to give low-income and disabled students in failing public schools the option to attend a private school. Yet Romney says he also "would do everything in his power" to reverse the decline of public schools. Stripping resources from public schools to give vouchers to students to attend private schools is not doing public schools any favors, as Floridians can attest. America needs a president committed to long-term, systemic improvement in public schools rather than one embracing schemes to starve them to death.

Public education, for all its shortcomings, remains one of America's boldest and most successful taxpayer investments. Literate, educated citizens are essential in a democracy. And the melting pots that are the public schools have ensured that generations of students have grown up exposed to cultures, backgrounds and religions different from their own and have absorbed the idea that America is a nation of immigrants.

Now Romney has embraced the voucher movement, albeit in a limited way. He wants federal money to follow poor and special needs students to any public, charter or private school "where permitted by law" of their choosing, rather than stay with the local public school. But such a system would be fraught with issues — including the separation of church and state — as experiments in Florida and other states have shown. And it comes at a time when pressures on public schools to be accountable for student success through flawed standardized tests make it easier to shift public opinion toward stripping public schools of resources. That might be defensible if private schools were held to the same standards, but they're not.

Already, money for Florida's voucher programs — one for disabled students and one for low-income students — mostly flows to religious-affiliated schools that have little accountability to taxpayers. This year, state lawmakers even granted another $10 million expansion for the low-income program, meaning up to $229 million in state resources will be diverted.

In Florida, the next dangerous step toward voucher expansion comes in November, when voucher advocates hope to persuade 60 percent of voters to set aside the state's extra church-state separation protections that have blocked some voucher programs in the past. If approved, Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson have signaled they will want the Legislature to consider a universal voucher scheme. Essentially, students could take their share of state dollars and spend it in any public or private school they wished. Is it a coincidence that Scott and Robinson have been the driving force behind the recent controversy in FCAT scoring, all but ensuring more public schools will be deemed failing?

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Other states have exposed further troubling issues. In Georgia, the tax credit scholarship program can be a sham. As the New York Times recently reported, families there can receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $2,500 for donating to a nonprofit scholarship group tied to their private school. Those schools then encourage those parents to apply for a "scholarship" for their own child.

In evoking vouchers, Romney has signaled he's more interested in carving out niches for some students than improving public schools for all.