04/01/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Florida's Elusive Voucher Waitlist

When you hang a pivotal and controversial piece of legislation allocating nearly $1 billion in tax credits to a program based on a waitlist, shouldn't you be able to consistently specify the exact number on a waitlist? Florida lawmakers sponsoring this massive voucher expansion bill cannot seem to do that.

Voucher Waitlist: Fact or Fiction?

I wish Florida Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami) would make my bank account grow as fast as the magical voucher waitlist grew last week! In three weeks, this elusive waitlist fluctuated from -- literally -- "We didn't keep track of a waitlist this year," to 10,000, to 25,000, to 34,000, to 50,000 and then the number skyrocketed to 100,000 students on their waitlist. Say what? The totals fluctuated up and down daily -- sometimes even from the same spokesperson as you'll see in a timeline below.

Vouchers Are Becoming The Great Escape

At the recent House hearing, Rep. Fresen, in lieu of the bill's sponsor, championed the bill and spent an hour describing how the House merged it with a special needs voucher student bill. In his characteristically fast-talking pace, Fresen acted as if he was selling our state an elixir to fix public education. He is an excellent salesman. Some speakers followed and spoke with pride about their voucher schools. Some proudly mentioned last week and today that their schools don't ever "teach to the test" and are devoid of FCAT-type tests. Public school teachers, students and parents must have drooled while listening to this testimony imagining the dream of not having to contend with high stakes tests! Wow. Sign us all up.

Let's Regroup

House Rep. Fresen and Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr are proposing nearly a $1 billion of tax funding to be allocated to religious institutions and other schools. Along with this program comes inferior teacher qualifications, no oversight on standard curriculum and the students need not take the FL designated standardized tests. Come again? (Note: I'm not stating that voucher schools have inferior teachers but they need not have a degree in teaching nor a certification to teach. Is this a prudent use of our tax dollars?)

Parents ask why don't these lawmakers care about the academic growth of voucher students? Or, are they just paying lip service to this much ballyhooed accountability model? Whatever the case, we still have unscrutinized tax dollars depleted from existing neighborhood schools. Voters don't appreciate not knowing if their dollars are being put to good use.

From the speeches I've heard the past three weeks, these tax credit scholarships are viewed by the general public as the "Great Escape from Standardized Tests" and not what they were originally intended to be. Vouchers have their place to serve special needs students. They were never meant to replace the public school system.

The Truth Behind the Waitlist

This huge waitlist was the precipitous for this bill. The bill's sponsor should produce it. It's a public record which was submitted as testimony and represents the basis of this bill. It's also a document the courts will subpoena, I imagine, if they must rule on the constitutionality of sending public dollars to religious institutions.

Voucher Waitlist Mentions

Feb 14 Step Up for Students President- 50K -"to completely eliminate those on the wait list..need to fund 50K more students."

Feb 20 Step Up For Students, VP, Jon East- 34K - "we have 34K who started the application process" waiting for funding.

Feb 27 House Speaker Weatherford -30K "30K on wait list but only 6K students will benefit in near term if this bill passes."

Mar 4 House Speaker Weatherford's opening speech - "tens of thousands longing to send their children" to voucher schools.

Mar 4 Senate President Gaetz' opening speech- 10K - "10K students waiting in line for vouchers."

Mar 5 Rep. Manny Diaz- 50K -Diaz must not have heard opening speeches because he told Miami Herald - "50K students are waiting"

Mar 6 Jon East, VP, Step Up For Students- 25K - lowered his figure from two weeks priot to now "25K students waiting"

Mar 7 Rep Manny Diaz, Jr -25K "25K were not able to receive vouchers this year because we ran out of money."

Mar 28 Rep Erik Fresen- 100K at House Education Appropriations Hearing- "We have 100K students on the wait list for vouchers."

Right to Know

-- What was the waitlist for vouchers on the day HB 7099 bill was filed?
-- Where is this list?
-- Who presides over this list?

Catch Me if You Can - Voucher Waitlist

We tried pinning down an answer to that perplexing question. Let's follow the bouncing ball here: School districts referred us to the Florida Dept. of Education. The FL DOE said without hesitation, "we don't have that list, we never did." They referred us to the "sole voucher agency," Step Up For Students and authoritatively stated that "Step Up for Students maintains the wait list." That's where we hit a roadblock.

The most perplexing answer came from this document, which said "Unlike in past years, the scholarship organization did not keep track of a waiting list for this school year," from a spokesman for Step Up For Students (presumably Jon East, who was later quoted in the article) to the AP News Service, Brandon Larrabee on February 20. If that quote is true, that means that Step Up for Students knew on February 20 that they did not keep track of a waitlist. I'm reluctant to ask. Does a controversial bill with a billion-dollar price tag hang on a waitlist that might not even exist? I sincerely hope not.

The Florida Senate has the right to know the truth before they climb out on that limb with the Florida House.