Yesterday’s Sun-Sentinel editorial reviewed the history of the Florida voucher program and identified wealthy backers who contributed one-half million dollars to political campaigns supporting school choice. The article cites legal arguments against vouchers: public dollars contributed indirectly to religious schools and the constitutional requirement that the State have a uniform system of public education.
Florida’s courts must review the state’s school voucher program after this year’s massive expansion by the Legislature.
The Florida School Board Association and the Florida Education Association — the teachers union — are among the plaintiffs challenging the legality of the program, which provides vouchers to 69,000 students, most of them in religious schools. A hearing will take place this month on the state’s motion to dismiss.
The lawsuit rests on two points. The Florida Constitution bans the spending of public money “directly or indirectly” on religious schools. Diversion of corporate taxes owed to the state through a nonprofit called Step Up for Students and given to parents as vouchers, the plaintiffs argue, does not get around the constitutional ban.
Also, the Constitution requires that the state provide a “uniform” system of public schools. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall calls the voucher program a “parallel” system.” Voucher schools don’t have to give the FCAT or any of the other punitive tests that have so angered parents across the state. Voucher schools must give only a national achievement test.
Jon East is a Step Up for Students vice president. He argues that test scores show gains by voucher students equal to students taking the same test in other states, and that studies show the program to be saving the state money. East also questions the timing of the lawsuit, since the Florida Tax Credit program has been operating for more than a decade.
However, the most recent independent assessment confirms there is no way to accurately compare voucher students with Florida public school students. Absent that accountability, parents who praise the program don’t know with certainty if their children are doing better. And the assessment shows that white voucher students from more affluent families do better — just as in public school.
As for the supposed savings, the calculations rely on information supplied by schools that accept vouchers. And while a legislative analysis this year projected a short-term savings, it also projected a longer-term $30 million deficit.
But why file the lawsuit now? The FEA’s McCall says this year’s expansion was a “tipping point.” Indeed.
The program began in 2002-03 with a limit of $50 million, targeting poor students. This year, the limit is $358 million. Because the limit increases by 25 percent each year, the program could spend $904 million by 2018-19, according to a Florida House analysis.
Families of four making roughly $62,000 will be eligible for a voucher. Three federal surveys place the median income for a Florida family of four at roughly $65,000. That is middle class, not poverty or working poor.
Step Up for Students refers to the “enormous educational challenges faced by children who live in poverty.” Why, then, did Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley push for such a significant expansion? And if the limit can be $62,000, why not $82,000 or $102,000?
East noted, correctly, that the vouchers will be smaller for families that make more money. Yet with this year’s expansion, the Legislature could move to a full voucher program with no income limits. And Kirtley has the influence to push for it.
Kirtley and his wife gave roughly $524,000 in the last election cycle, almost all of it to Republicans. Kirtley also is chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, which successfully targeted voucher critics with roughly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.
Voucher supporters portray critics as hostile to school choice for minorities. Whatever compelling anecdotes supporters use, however, there is no compelling evidence the program is succeeding. Example: If minorities are benefiting, why do black students score 20 points lower than white students on those tests?
No state has a bigger voucher system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.
Florida is on the way to spending $1 billion on a program with questionable accountability that could be the start of an attempt to privatize public education.
Legal review of the voucher program is long overdue.