Florida’s legislators appear to be on their way to passing legislation that will greatly expand the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program — a voucher-like scheme that allows public money to be used for private school tuition. A Miami Herald editorial said the plan  will “please the few” but  undercut “the many,” while Frank Cerabino, a writer for The Palm Beach Post, went further, describing the legislation as an opening gambit in what “promises to be a banner year for the dismantling of public education in Florida.”

Under the current program, which started in 2001, scholarships are provided to low-income families to pay for private school tuition, “funded by businesses which receive dollar-for-dollar credits on their corporate income taxes,” as  The Herald explained here.  Currently about 60,000 students receive scholarships each year — with more than 80 percent of them using the money to pay for tuition at religious schools. There is a cap on tax credits now set at $286 million but it is set to go up to nearly $900 billion in the next four years. The new legislation would add millions of dollars to the cap and allow it grow even  faster than previously permitted.

The legislation — which has the support of powerful corporate interests in Florida — is startling in a number of  ways, including the fact that it does not require the same accountability measures for voucher schools that the state requires for public schools, as longtime school activist Rita Solnet  explains in this piece. Solnet is a former director of leadership development at IBM, an organizational consultant , and president of Parents Across Florida. A version of this appeared on Huffington Post.

By Rita Solnet

Florida’s massive voucher expansion legislation now being considered by state lawmakers promises to be one of the most contentious issues this year. Not only does it greatly expand a controversial program that diverts public money to private and religious schools but it also fails to mandate the same accountability systems that are required of public schools.

Under the new proposal, retailers could divert sales tax payments directly to the non-profit organization that operates the program. Furthermore, the bill expands coverage from poor families to the middle class, increases the per-pupil cost of the voucher increases, and allows the cost cap to rise from its current $286 million to nearly a billion dollars in the next few years (vastly more than the $47 million allocated when the program began in 2001).

The legislation, championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, is soaring through the House with relative ease despite the fact that Floridians voted overwhelmingly against vouchers to religious schools in 2012. And it is now moving through the Senate as well, where critics are offering testimony decrying the lack of accountability in the bill.

It is seldom a wise move to devise long-term institutional change for short-term benefit but that’s how Florida rolls. Here’s some brief history as to how public schools arrived at this troubling time.

The Epicenter of Education Accountability —  Jeb Bush

Florida’s accountability overkill began when Jeb Bush was governor from 1999-2007 and decided to assign each school an A-F grade based on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment System tests, which have been riddled with problems for years. Each year Tallahassee has released school grades that are often challenged because the results don’t make sense, driving state officials to actually change the cut scores so that more schools would get better grades. In 2012, for example, Florida students in various grades took a new FCAT writing test but only 27 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient, down from 81 percent the year before. State officials panicked and decided to lower the passing score on the exam — not the first time such action was taken to avoid a disaster.

It’s no surprise that Floridians began to lose faith in this collapsing accountability system with its dubious rankings. Many lost faith and patience with legislators who dabbled as education experts too. Yet, even while FCAT stumbled, real estate developers, community businesses and parents were incessantly focused on these grades.

Bush implemented a series of other school reforms as well and claimed that they had turned around the public school system. But, ironically, while hyping his public school education “miracle,”  he simultaneously initiated a voucher program for people to get out of public schools! A court ruled his first voucher program unconstitutional, but Bush and his supporters found a different way to use public money for private schools. Bush created another “corporate voucher” program that sidestepped the court’s concern over separation of church and state by using a middleman, an organization called Step Up For Students. Ironically again, the new corporate voucher permitted students to avoid taking Florida’s required standardized tests.

The new legislation, if it becomes law, would allow for faster expansion than previously envisioned, diverting more public money to private and religious schools. Let’s look at the details.

What Does This Voucher Expansion Do?

The legislation removes some eligibility requirements, such as having to attend a public school for one year. It significantly increases the minimum income requirement while also tossing in partial vouchers to families earning over $63,000 per year. A fact often unspoken is that this bill raises the per-pupil amount it pays to voucher schools, of which 83 percent are religious institutions. Rep. David Richardson (D)-Miami Beach said that the rapid expansion of the program called for under the legislation is “too much, too fast.”

Why Are Florida’s Corporate Vouchers So Controversial?

1) This bill does not — repeat not — require voucher students to take the state standardized test.

The Florida Legislature has shouted “education accountability” from the mountaintops for 14 years. Lawmakers enacted bills that wrapped accountability measures around state standardized tests. Teacher’s salaries are calculated on those tests and their employment hangs on those tests. School grades are determined on those tests and schools can be closed based on the results. Yet the sponsors of this bill refused to include language to require voucher schools to enforce state standardized tests. Accountability, anyone?

2) Inferior teaching requirements in voucher schools

Voucher school teachers do not have to have a degree in education. In fact, they don’t even have to have a teaching certificate. Is that keeping a watchful eye on quality education for all Florida’s students?

3) Zero evidence required of return on investment by voucher schools to the state

The legislation doesn’t require that voucher schools explain how the money they get from the scholarships is spent or how students progress.  How’s that for fiscal discipline? The money used to fund the program would have gone to underfunded public schools, which are weakened by the diversion.It means  our neighborhood public schools have less to offer students –teachers, sports, tutors, coaches, nurses, elective classes offered or materials they can afford for students. Class size in traditional public schools will also rise by necessity — even though the voters approved a state constitutional limit on the number of students in each class. When schools exceed it, districts are levied expensive penalties. But get this:  Neither voucher schools nor charter schools have such penalties.

4) Florida voters said ‘no’ to vouchers before 

When Floridians voted down a voucher scheme in 2012, a big concern was the use of public money being used to pay for tuition at religious schools. Expanding a program in which public money is  used to send students to mostly religious educational institutions is bound to ruffle taxpayers’ feathers.

5) Voucher schools are not required to take all children

Whether children are physically or emotionally disabled, whether they are English Language Learners, or Buddhists, Baptists, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or agnostic, traditional public schools must accept every child. Voucher schools do not.

Any way you look at it, this legislation allows private entities to receive public tax dollars with no accountability — but with a great deal of hypocrisy.  How can they support a program costing nearly a billion dollars that has inferior teaching requirements and no return on investment proof back to taxpayers? How can they vote ‘yes’ on legislation that says kids don’t have to take the same test public school students must take? 

Only Florida’s Senate President Don Gaetz (from a town called Niceville) cared enough to call for accountability with vouchers. To date that has been ignored.

Vouchers Actually Strip Away Parents Ultimate Choice

The same legislators always hype “parent choice” as their mantra whenever they support bills that privatize public education. Rep Manny Diaz (R)- Hialeah said, “Parents can vote with their feet.” Well, parents also want the choice to opt their child out of standardized tests. Why isn’t he waving the banner for that too?

I’m a member of corporate America who spent 17 years volunteering in public schools. I know that many parents really want the “choice” of a strong neighborhood school. They don’t want to have to research the best elementary schools with nurses. They don’t want to be forced to shop around for the best electives in middle schools or attend colossal school fairs to pick the best high school. Parents don’t have the time nor do they want to become experts in determining which curriculum standards offered at which schools are best. Parents don’t want to become private investigators tracking down who really owns their school or hunting down teaching credentials or financial liquidity of schools. They want their kids to go to a strong, high quality public school nearby. Period. That’s the ultimate “choice” parents really want. Each time public education is de-funded with legislation like this,  choice is stripped away from parents — and public schools are tragically weakened.