A recent commentary written by William Mattox, a fellow with the right-wing think tank James Madison Institute, provides a glimpse of the strategy pro-voucher forces use to build support for their program.
It begins with an anecdote of a student who says he was ill-served in “government schools” — a familiar pejorative used instead of public schools — but blossomed under a private school he attended with funding from the state. But there are thousands of success stories throughout the state of students realizing their potential at public schools. There are hundreds of thousands of students who grow and thrive in public schools and each of them should be a celebrated success story.
The reason for the column was to criticize the Florida Education Association with the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida PTA, the Florida Association of School Administrators and other groups and individuals seeking to declare the ever-expanding tax-credit voucher program unconstitutional. The use of anecdotal success stories masks the fact that voucher proponents have resisted direct comparison with public schools at every juncture.
In 2006, Florida courts declared the original voucher program unconstitutional, but that didn’t deter lawmakers from creating new voucher programs and expanding them. The Florida Constitution provides a clear road map on education. It states that “the education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high-quality education.”
This “paramount duty of the state” is being whittled away by lawmakers in their expansion of tax-credit vouchers. In recent years, legislators have cut funding for public school projects and ratcheted up standards and accountability measures while shifting hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that serve students in private schools that have little or no accountability or consequences for poor performance.
To be clear, these private schools use public tax dollars and are not held to the same standards as public schools, nor are they held accountable to taxpayers for what they teach and how they teach it.
These changes in the state’s education system move the state further and further away from Florida’s constitutionally required system of public schools.
There’s no conclusive evidence that these taxpayer-financed vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend unaccountable private schools. Voucher schools are largely unregulated, don’t have to follow the state’s academic standards and their attendees do not have to take state-required tests. And they don’t have to hire qualified teachers and don’t have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely.
Vouchers do not reduce public education costs. In fact, they increase costs, by requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems: one public and one private. To date, the program has diverted $1.8 billion in taxes owed to the state to private schools and away from local public schools or other state services.
FEA believes that all neighborhood schools should be safe, secure community centers with an array of services that provide families with high-quality before- and after-school programs. And we believe that our local public schools should have strong curriculum, including arts, music and physical education.
Rather than supporting two school systems – one accountable and the other not so much – Florida’s taxpayers and students would be better served by investing to improve our local public schools and helping all of the students who attend them.
By Joanne McCall
Joanne McCall is the vice president of the Florida Education Association