by Kathleen Oropeza
THE GAINESVILLE SUN/ THURSDAY, MARCH 20, 2014
Florida politicians are at it again. Aided by a high-priced team of lobbyists, they are fast tracking the passage of the largest expansion of private religious school vouchers in state history. And they’re sticking taxpayers with the $2 billion dollar tab.
This year’s marquee voucher expansion effort, by Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Ritch Workman, is an unprecedented, shameless raid on our most sacrosanct revenue stream – the Florida sales and use tax. Generated by visitors and residents alike, this revenue is Florida’s bread and butter. It pays for the roads we drive on and the services we use every day.
The irony is astounding. The miserly way our politicians invest in Florida public education makes Scrooge look generous. If they can’t bring themselves to fund technology in our public schools, how do they justify poaching our sales tax revenues to expand private religious school vouchers?
Florida’s Constitution is clear. Funding a single high quality system of public education is the paramount duty of the Legislature. Nowhere does it urge politicians to use our money to fund a separate, unequal and unfair religious-based voucher system. Why do we tolerate politicians diverting billions in Florida tax revenue away from the one system they are legally bound to fund: our Florida public schools?
Every single public school teacher and child is measured and sorted against Florida’s harsh high stakes A-F rubric. But legislators give religious voucher schools a full pass. Zero accountability means no curriculum guidelines, no proof the children are learning, no requirement that every child be taught by a “highly-effective” certified teacher, no transparency and ironically no data driven evidence of a return on investment.
If that doesn’t give Floridians pause, Workman and Galvano have based this year’s entire voucher expansion scheme on a dubious “waiting list of students” that no one has ever seen, despite repeated requests. Florida taxpayers should not be expected to pay for this foolishness.
In this year alone, $286 million in what should have been public tax dollars were spent subsidizing religious school vouchers. For years, corporations have gotten a dollar for dollar credit in exchange for diverting their taxes away from Florida’s general revenue to pay for vouchers.
Tax revenue from the insurance, oil and gas industries and the sale of alcohol is deposited with Step Up for Students, Florida’s only authorized voucher dealer. By statute, Step Up takes a 3 percent management fee off the top every year. Between now and 2016, this voucher expansion will divert $2.3 billion dollars to subsidize vouchers for religious schools who are absolutely unaccountable to their benefactors, the Florida taxpayer.
There are 2.74 million children attending Florida public schools, which are grossly underfunded and disrespected by the Florida Legislature. They deal daily with Tallahassee’s rotten hand of high-stakes stress, a narrowed curriculum, shrinking electives and limited access to outdated technology. Every single one of these conditions was caused by the actions of the Florida Legislature.
Our lawmakers have no business using sales tax revenues to fund religious ideology. Religious schools receiving our tax dollars are free to discriminate and deny access to any student. Our forefathers fought and died to ensure the separation of church and state for monumental reasons.
The Florida Legislature should think long and hard about the constitutionality of mixing religion with public tax dollars. Clearly, our politicians are having trouble comprehending their paramount duty to high quality public education.
Funding this $2 billion dollar private religious school voucher expansion with sales tax revenue is a very bad choice for Florida.