Is Florida trying to destroy public schools in the name of parental choice? Sure looks like it | Opinion

Miami Herald

Florida could soon have two separate and unequal school systems.

One would be regulated by strict state laws on curriculum, testing, student performance, school grades, safety and even on how teachers can discuss race, gender and sexual orientation.

The other gets to slide by under the motto: “The fewer regulations, the better.” Those schools don’t have to be accredited by an outside organization, teachers don’t have to be certified and curriculum requirements are lax. If those schools ignore evolution to teach creationism, it’s not the state’s business, yet taxpayers are still paying for them.

That system already exists, at a small, albeit growing, scale thanks to Florida’s school-voucher programs, which provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. Promoted heavily by former Gov. Jeb Bush, vouchers were once touted as a lifeline for low-income students in failing schools or who were struggling in a traditional education setting and otherwise could not afford a better education.

Eligibility was limited by factors such as income or disability status, but has been expanded in recent years.

Now the Legislature wants to put vouchers on steroids and make them available to every K-12 student in Florida, whether low-income, middle class or affluent — more than 2.8 million who are in public schools. Students would be eligible for an education savings accounts that could be used for private or home schooling, tutoring and textbooks.

The state, essentially, would leave it up to private entities, with little oversight, the responsibility of educating its citizens. Meanwhile, that’s money being siphoned from school districts, which have had to turn to their own communities in places like Miami-Dade County for help funding essential things like teacher raises.

Republicans have discovered that “parental rights” will sell almost anything, from the law critics call “Don’t Say Gay” to Gov. DeSantis’ crackdown on classroom discussions about racism. It’s likely the voucher expansion will be successful, given House Bill 1 is a must-pass for House Speaker Paul Renner.

The fine print

As usual, the devil is in the details. Republicans have given zero information on how much this will cost taxpayers. The Herald reported the legislation is being fast-tracked but, “The bill would have an indeterminate fiscal impact,” according to a legislative staff analysis. That would depend on how many students participate and where lawmakers set per-student spending.

Perhaps the opaque scope of this proposal is not happenstance. But the Herald’s recent reporting put its potential ramifications into perspective:

There are 382,000 students who attend private schools or are home-schooled in Florida. Currently, they do not receive any state money. If only 25% of them took advantage of the program, and those currently in it remained, the cost could reach $600 million and, as the program grows, $4 billion within the first five years, based on calculations provided to the Herald by Norín Dollard, a senior research analyst at Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Public schools could lose $2.4 billion to $3.4 billion by the 2026-27 school year, the Institute estimates.

That’s a big chunk of change, so the justification for expanding vouchers should go beyond the argument for more “school choice.” It is undeniable that many parents are happy with the education their kids get on vouchers, as surveys show, but the effectiveness of the program has been hard to measure, as the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Students don’t have to take the same standardized tests as they would in public schools, and private schools don’t have to disclose graduation rates to the public. The data gathered in different studies points to mixed results. One study by the Urban Institute often touted by school-choice advocates showed that voucher students were more likely to go to college, but that the majority of them stayed in the program for less than two years. Another analysis required by the state found in 2020 that voucher students made as much progress as expected, but that schools with a large number of voucher students saw negative progress, the Sentinel reported.

Rules are different

Not all private schools are the same. They can run the gamut, from the well-established ones known for their special programs to others that have popped up with the single purpose of milking voucher program dollars. A system like Florida’s allows this discrepancy to fester.

Empowering parents, as Republicans say they are, does little for families when they realize they have enrolled their child in a private school with little academic rigor or in administrative disarray. Just ask the parents who showed up to drop off their children at Allapattah Wynwood School in January only to find out the school shut down until further notice because of a feud within the family that runs it, CBS4 reported. Or take Miami’s Centner Academy, whose owners, based on misinformation, told staff not to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Or the schools that took school vouchers while rejecting LGBTQ students, as the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court last year blasted the door open for vouchers to fund religious schools.

That’s not to say that vouchers don’t have a place in our education system. Arguing for their abolition at this point would not only be foolish given Florida’s direction, and also unsympathetic to the parents who credit them with saving their child from a failing public school. But when vouchers were introduced, they were meant to supplement public education for students with particular needs, not replace it. The latter appears to be the intent of HB 1.

Providing good public K-12 education to all is still a hallmark of a democracy. It is the duty of the state and written into the Florida Constitution. We doubt that Florida can achieve that goal when it’s funding two systems with unequal sets of rules and expectations.