‘There are common hypocrites. There are spectacular hypocrites. And then there are Florida legislators.’

(Flickr)
(Flickr)

“There are common hypocrites. There are spectacular hypocrites. And then there are Florida legislators.”

That’s how John Romano, a writer for the Tampa Bay Times, started this column expressing his disgust over legislation that the Florida legislature just rammed through with procedural tricks that expands the state’s controversial voucher program. What got him so exercised? Among the reasons:

*Lawmakers talk a great deal about the importance of holding schools and teachers “accountable,” and they have made student standardized test scores the chief metric for this endeavor. But lo and behold, private schools are not required to give their voucher students the same standardized tests that public school students are forced to take — even though their tuition is paid for with public funds. And there is no measure that holds the private voucher schools “accountable” for whatever test scores they do provide to show how well their students are doing.

*Lawmakers have repeatedly said the goal of the voucher program was to help poor families exercise their right to “choose” where to send their children to school, but that doesn’t explain the new legislation that expands the program to the middle class.

The way the legislation was passed was something to behold, as it is a case study of how to ram through legislation using procedural maneuvers despite opposition from major education, civil rights and parents organizations in the state.

The voucher program, officially called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, now serves nearly 60,000 students — more than 80 percent of whom attend religious schools — and some Republican legislative leaders were intent on a massive expansion. That plan fell apart during the legislative session when House and Senate members couldn’t agree on whether to require voucher students to take the same high-stakes standardized tests as students in public schools.

There was also a great deal of controversy over the conduct of the organization that administers the Florida voucher program, Step Up For Students, including a video that showed SUFS President Doug Tuthill talking about how much money his organization spends funding political campaigns. Given that SUFS is classified as a nonprofit, it isn’t supposed to use its money that way. The Tampa Bay Times, in this article about the video, quoted Tuthill as saying:

“One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money. In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races.”

On the penultimate day of the legislative session on Thursday, Democrats in the state Senate blocked legislation expanding the voucher program that had passed in the state House. But on Friday, the session’s last day, senators employed a procedural maneuver in which they took the entire 141-page bill and turned it into an amendment to a separate education bill that had already been approved by both legislative chambers. Republicans were able to do this with the help of three Democrats.

The bill included a measure that prevents Step Up for Students from using state funds for political purposes.

Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, had earlier in the session argued that voucher students should be required to take the same or similar standardized tests as public school students, but he caved on that. The legislation that was passed requires private schools that have a majority of voucher students to give some standardized tests to students — though it doesn’t say what kind — and report them to an institute at Florida State University which would compile and publish the data. There is no mechanism in the bill for holding the private schools “accountable” for test scores in the same way that Florida law holds public schools “accountable.”

Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, criticized lawmakers for moving ahead with a voucher expansion while public schools are underfunded. Among those pleased with the outcome was former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush’s, Foundation for Excellence in Education, which issued a news release praising the legislature for passing a voucher expansion.

The Associated Press quoted Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, as saying “Let’s let parents decide. Parents are the first and best educators.”

Funny thing about that: The best-known parents the Florida Parent Teacher Association, which represents parent groups across the state, opposed the legislation, saying that public funds should go to public schools. Negron must not have meant those parents.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 5