I’ll admit it. During my time in the Florida Legislature I was generally supportive of school vouchers. I bought into the argument that vouchers were similar in effect to the GI bill and the Florida Resident Access Grants, better known as FRAG.
The GI bill, a highly successful and popular program, helps military veterans pay for college courses. Under the FRAG program, the state pays for a portion of tuition at Florida’s private colleges, deferring the higher costs of expanding our colleges and universities to keep up with demand.
Both of these programs, however, deal with higher education. Advocating for elementary, middle and high school vouchers carries a different challenge, namely to avoid conflicting with the Florida Constitution.
At first, school vouchers were used for a very limited and specific purpose. When the McKay scholarships were first proposed to assist students with disabilities, it was believed it would save the public schools money while providing a better tailored educational experience for the students — a win/win.
The next expansion of vouchers came in the form of helping low-income families to have the “opportunity” to choose a private school to put them on parity with higher-income families who could afford that choice.
So far so good, but then I started to have doubts. Why couldn’t that school choice be offered through our public schools? With magnet schools, charter schools and career academies growing and expanding, weren’t there plenty of options for our low-income students?
Limited education dollars should be used first and foremost in our public school classrooms. School buildings should be properly maintained. Teachers’ pay should be commensurate with their education, experience and dedication. Every student should have appropriate instructional materials. Tutoring, reading coaches and additional remedial help should be available for struggling students.
When those needs are properly and adequately funded, then dollars could go for extended choice and opportunities. To rob public schools of needed resources to enrich private schools is tantamount to a cynical, self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures public school failure.
The Florida House and Senate are split over the expansion of vouchers. Although the Senate feels that accountability should be required prior to expansion, the House has rejected that position.
Instead, the House bill makes numerous changes to the use of school vouchers that would increase the number and the amount of the vouchers, and would expand the pool of low-income families who qualify.
The nonprofit Step Up for Students administers the majority of vouchers and receives millions in administrative fees. With a lot to gain from the House bill, Step Up has made several unfortunate and notable missteps.
During the bill’s committee hearing, Step Up claimed it had a waiting list of tens of thousands of students above and beyond the roughly 60,000 students it now serves. When pressed to produce the list, it had to admit there was no such list.
Another embarrassing transgression came to light when a video was uncovered quoting the president of Step Up for Students, Doug Tuthill, in which he explained how they were able to achieve their legislative success. They did it, he said, through a combination of investing large sums of Political Action Committee money into legislative campaigns and by making low-income families the face of vouchers, thus putting Democratic legislators in an awkward position.
The Legislature is constitutionally required to fund a uniform and free public school system. The use of vouchers arguably wades into constitutionally murky waters.
Opponents of voucher expansion make a valid argument. Those students attending private schools are not subjected to high-stakes tests. The schools are not required to hire certified teachers or to comply with the overabundance of mandates hoisted on the public schools. Additionally, monies used for vouchers are taken away from basic public school needs.
And what do we know about the performance of voucher students in private schools? Not much. The data is unclear, and thus far we have not insisted on the same accountability — testing and certification — that we require in our schools. If it’s imperative for public school students to be tested, it should be imperative for any student receiving public school funds.
The Florida Senate should continue to insist on accountability before expanding the use of vouchers. Better yet, the Senate should let the voucher expansion bill die and instead focus on arming our teachers with the resources and flexibility they need to help each and every student achieve their highest level of learning.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at [email protected]