The new “parent empowerment” voucher, passed during Florida’s 2019 legislative session, is a calculated gateway to universal vouchers which are often linked by reformers to the end of brick and mortar public education as we know it. The victory laps being taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, House and Senate leadership and former Gov. Jeb Bush ring hollow when you consider that we are in our 21st year of GOP dominance. Where’s the “victory” when despite enormous public outcry, there is zero possibility of a different policy outcome?
Predictably, op-eds have cropped up across the state featuring Bush assuring everyone that, “public schools will not be harmed by private school tuition vouchers,” and Senate Education Chair Manny Diaz proclaiming in the Sentinel that the “new voucher is good for students and the state” (May 7). While public schools stand to lose funding and bear the responsibility of bringing returning voucher students back on track academically, it’s the children using this newest “choice” voucher to attend unregulated schools who run the greatest risk.
The very use of the word “choice” conjures up a different meaning for everyone. When a parent chooses to give up their child’s right to a free and appropriate public education, take a voucher and attend a private religious school there are consequences. Private schools reserve the right to discriminate against any child for any reason, they are not required to accept any student, parents are responsible for the tuition gap, teachers may have little more than an high school diploma, curriculum is not subject to state review and can be loaded with alternative, even radical content, there are no required anti-bullying programs, safety protocols, facility standards or transportation. When there is a dispute, often the solution is to leave the school.
The way Florida sells “choice” relies heavily on gaslighting its citizens. We’re talking two decades of psychological manipulation to get both politicians and the public to doubt the credibility of teachers, the value of public schools, the importance of respecting the separation of church and state, even their own childhood school memories. To complete the picture, add the pain and suffering of starvation funding, high-stakes testing, arming teachers and a hostile spate of accountability measures imposed solely on public schools by the state. For perspective, there are nearly three million students in Florida public schools and just over 100,000 voucher recipients in private schools that cost the state a billion dollars every year.
The Parent Empowerment voucher is like the program shut down by the Florida Supreme Court in the 2006 Bush v Holmes decision. Instead of using diverted corporate tax revenue, this new voucher drains funds from the same property tax dollars that comprise the primary funding source for Florida’s public-school districts. It features an eligibility escalator which eventually includes families of four making $100,000 per year resulting in an enormous middle-class entitlement. When these vouchers, valued at approximately $7,200, are redeemed at private, mostly religious schools, it’s understood that parents are responsible for the balance, which could be upwards of $18,000 per year. It’s easy to see how the low-income students that politicians purport to serve could be squeezed out of this “choice.”
Both Bush and Diaz cite glowing, largely unproven notions that vouchers have “improved the outcomes of disadvantaged students, they’ve also improved the performance of all public schools.” How exactly do vouchers improve the performance of public schools? Is it by removing academic low-performers from the A+ Accountability data? Diaz cites an Urban Institute study, which was funded by the Walton family and Bush’s own Foundation for Excellence in Education, saying that voucher students are “43% more likely to enroll in 4-year colleges and 20% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.” But Diaz fails to add the line from the study that says, “the effects on enrollment, however, were largely at the community college level, and the effects on degree attainment were slight, with no effect at the bachelor’s degree level.” The spin just never stops.
The bottom line is that the state is absolutely obsessed with imposing strict accountability standards on its public schools. Yet Bush, Diaz, Corcoran, House and Senate leadership feel no such compunction to make sure voucher students are receiving the same quality from private religious schools. In fact, there is zero interest from the state as to the type of education voucher parents are choosing for their children, what they are learning or whether they are staying on grade level. If that doesn’t raise a billion red flags, it’s hard to imagine what will.
The author is the founder of FundEducationNow.org, a non-partisan group focused on Florida education policy. First published in the Orlando Sentinel.