Former State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand has issued an impassioned plea on behalf of Florida’s 78,000 voucher students. He wants the plaintiffs, namely the Florida Education Association, which represents teachers, to drop its lawsuit opposing the diversion of tax dollars to the voucher program. The FEA lawsuit is now at the appeal stage.
His article spurred some ideas as to how the voucher program might survive ongoing lawsuits:
- Convert Florida’s tax-funded voucher program into a private charity instead. Political conservatives such as Chartrand are forever talking about how government is not the answer to all of society’s various problems. They tell us constantly that we should look for solutions from the private sector, instead. So why not return Florida’s voucher program to its original form, a pure, privately funded charity? The forerunner to the Tax Credit Scholarship program was businessman Jon Kirtley’s charity. It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of “tax credits” into a tuition-granting organization in 2001. It gained widespread popularity, only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts in 2006. While corporate taxpayers might lose a tax write-off (“state taxes paid”) for their federal returns, reverting to a purely private charity would effectively end the lawsuits.
- Weed out the school-recipients in the program that are religious in nature. The people of Florida object strongly to their state tax dollars being used to fund religious organizations. Our state constitution has a much stronger no-aid-to-religion provision than other states. Our “Blaine Amendment” prohibits both “direct” and “indirect” aid. Further, the voters soundly rejected an amendment in recent years that would have weakened Florida’s no-aid provisions. Relaying tax-dollars only to nonreligious voucher-recipient schools would be another way for voucher proponents to avoid lawsuits.
- Require voucher-receiving schools to participate in Florida’s uniform school accountability program. For many years, the state appointed researcher, David Figlio, used an apples-to-oranges comparison to measure voucher students’ progress against their public school peers, which wasn’t helpful. Now, his successor, FSU professor Carolyn Herrington, compares voucher-apples to non-Florida apples. That’s still not helpful. Voucher students’ families deserve to know whether their children are meeting specific grade-level objectives before they’re promoted. The FCAT and FSA are the types of tests that can tell us that. Measuring fluctuations in percentile rankings, as Herrington has, doesn’t appropriately measure “growth,” which is a term of art among professional educators. Uniformity in accountability might solve as least part of the legal challenges brought by voucher opponents.
- Advocate for an honest, bottom-up, “build-out” cost analysis for developing a high-quality public school system across Florida. Chartrand makes some assumptions in his editorial about the potential costs of returning 78,000 voucher students to the public schools, namely that new facilities would need to be built. Jacksonville, however, has numerous under-enrolled schools and persistent inequities in many of them. Per-pupil funding has remained essentially stagnant, in real dollars, since 2007 in Florida. While policymakers have favored, promoted and funded school privatization — without holding voucher schools equally accountable — our public schools lose resources. To say that the money follows the child is disingenuous when they don’t leave the public schools in neat, classroom increments. The light bill, the lawn bill, the custodial bill, and the salary costs for professional educators don’t change when a few students leave a school.The budget squeeze on the public schools is intentional. Combined with high-stakes testing, low funding begets a self-fulfilling prophecy of “failure,” which in turn sells parents on charters and vouchers, which in turn means more tax dollars going to privatization, which in turn drains precious public education funds.
Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.