Florida's massive Voucher Expansion Bill promises to be one of the most contentious issues this year and will be no doubt be watched closely by GOP legislators across the nation. To describe why this legislation accelerates the dismantling of public schools, I must first explain how we arrived here.
The Epicenter of Education Accountability -- Jeb Bush
Florida's accountability overkill began when Jeb Bush decided to assign each school an A-F grade based on student scores on standardized tests -- a seemingly harmless idea. To non educators who were enacting laws in Florida, forcing competition among schools seemed nifty. I suppose they could talk about public schools like Gator and Noles games -- in terms of scores. Before long, real estate developers, community businesses and parents were incessantly focused on these grades and awaited them before making decisions.
Tallahassee churned out school grades which were regularly tweaked - always upward - especially during election years. It's no surprise that Floridians lost faith in this collapsing accountability system with dubious rankings. Many lost faith and patience with legislators who dabbled as education experts too.
Ironically, while former Governor Bush hyped his public school education miracle, he simultaneously initiated a voucher program for people to get out of public schools! The courts ruled Jeb's first voucher program unconstitutional.
Let's Privatize Public Schools, Take 2...
Not to be outdone by the courts, Jeb created another "corporate voucher" program that sidestepped the court's concern over separation of church and state by using a middleman agency -- Step Up For Students. Ironically again, the new corporate voucher permitted students to avoid taking Florida's required standardized tests. Tell me again about this all important accountability system?
Jeb's corporate vouchers began with a $47 million cap which grew to $300 million. That money is diverted from public schools and is paid primarily to religious institutions. Somehow, this exorbitant amount wasn't good enough for some legislators who receive hefty donations from beneficiaries of the voucher program. This year, a massive voucher expansion bill was filed seeking a limit of close to the "B" word -- nearly a billion dollars. Under this obscene tax scheme, retailers can divert sales-tax payments directly to the voucher middleman agency.
What could possibly go wrong there?
The Voucher Wake-Up Call...
When House Speaker Weatherford sounded the trumpet on this "massive voucher expansion" bill, it shined a spotlight on the fact that Florida already pays some $300 million to voucher schools with an automatic escalator built in to increase the cap. Given that Florida voters overwhelmingly rejected this concept in 2012, this bill prompted many Floridians to ask why?
What Does This Voucher Expansion Do?
This bill removes some eligibility requirements -- like having to attend a public school for one year. It significantly increases the minimum income requirement while also tossing in partial vouchers to families earning over $63K per year. A fact often unspoken is that this bill raises the per pupil amount it pays to voucher schools of which over 80 percent are religious institutions. And perhaps the toughest pill to swallow is that it expands the already-contested voucher program to nearly a billion dollars. A fact that some legislators, like Rep. David Richardson (D)-Miami Beach prudently stated is "too much, too fast."
Why Are Florida's Corporate Vouchers So Controversial?
1) This Bill Does Not Require Voucher Students to take the State Standardized Test
The bill's sponsors dash from one hearing to the next and must get confused with having to make hypocritical statements.The Florida Legislature shouted "Education Accountability" from the mountaintops for fourteen years. They enacted bills which wrapped accountability measures around state standardized tests. Teacher's salaries are calculated on those tests, their employment hangs on those tests, school grades are determined on those tests and even a school closing is based on those all-important tests. Yet the sponsors of this bill refuse to include language to require voucher schools to enforce state standardized tests. Accountability, anyone?
2) Inferior Teaching Requirements in Voucher Schools
Voucher school teachers do not have to have a degree in education. In fact, they don't even have to have a teaching certificate. Is that keeping a watchful eye on quality education for all Florida's students?
3) Zero Evidence Required of Return-on Investment by Voucher Schools to the State
It makes you wonder if legislators have any fiscal discipline whatsoever. No accounting for how this money is spent is needed. As a businesswoman I find that unconscionable. These are much-needed dollars that would have gone to public schools -- you know, regulated institutions our tax dollars built, supported, and depend on. By diverting money away from public schools into private hands, it weakens our neighborhood public schools in terms of programs they can offer, sports, tutors, coaches, nurses, elective classes offered or materials they can afford for students. It will also force class sizes to bloat and impose stiff class size penalties onto public schools. Neither voucher nor charter schools have such penalties.
4) Florida Voters Said No to Vouchers to Religious Schools
Today, 83 percent of Florida's voucher money goes to religious institutions. Given that vouchers to religious schools was an issue Floridians voted down overwhelmingly in 2012, it's easy to grasp why proposing a massive expansion of corporate vouchers would ruffle taxpayer's feathers. After all, it ignores the voters" choice."
5) Voucher Schools Are Not Required to Take All Children
Whether children are physically or emotionally disabled, whether they are English Language Learners, or Buddhists, Baptists, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or agnostic, public schools must accept every child. Voucher schools do not. By weakening existing public schools into oblivion, we will most certainly abandon children. Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.
Accountability -- The Height of Hypocrisy
This voucher-palooza expansion is not only too fast, too soon but it's hypocritical. Lawmakers demonstrate their lack of support for high quality public education while at the same time they dismiss accountability when it comes to voucher schools. How can they support a billion dollar program with inferior teaching requirements and no return on investment proof back to taxpayers? How can they vote yes on a bill that says kids don't have to take the same test public school students must take? Their credibility vanished and they can no longer utter the words, "this is about the kids."
Only Florida's Senate President Don Gaetz (from a town called Niceville) cared enough to call for accountability with vouchers. To date that has been ignored. Some fourteen years later, Florida's accountability system is now viewed as a wobbly house of cards teetering on collapse. Most voters will tell you they've lost all trust in the so-called accountability system.
Vouchers Actually Strip Away Parents' Ultimate Choice
The same legislators always hype "parent choice" as their mantra whenever they support bills that privatize public education. Rep Manny Diaz (R)- Hialeah said, "parents can vote with their feet." Well, Mr. Diaz, parents also want the choice to opt their child out of standardized tests. Why aren't you waving the banner for that too?
I'm a member of corporate America who spent 17 years volunteering in public schools. This is what parents want:
"In the end, parents want the "choice" of a strong neighborhood school. They don't want to have to research the best elementary schools with nurses. They don't want to be forced to shop around for the best electives in middle schools or attend colossal school fairs to pick the best high school. Parents don't have the time nor do they want to become experts in determining which curriculum standards offered at which schools are best. Parents don't want to become private investigators tracking down who really owns their school or hunting down teaching credentials or financial liquidity of schools. They want their kids to go to a strong, high quality public school nearby. Period. That's the ultimate "choice" all parents really want. Each time you de-fund public education with legislation like this, you strip that choice away from parents. You weaken existing public schools vs. strengthening them."
Rita M. Solnet is the president of Parents Across Florida.