Don Gaetz: Scholarship lawsuit threatens best interests of students, taxpayers

The great divide in education is not between the haves and the have-nots, the smart kids and the ones who struggle, the white kids and kids of color.  Those differences are all very real, but a decade of driving up and measuring performance has proven they are surmountable by effective teaching, parents who care and communities that insist on solutions, not excuses.

The educational divide that seemingly cannot be bridged is between those who think schools should operate for the benefit of adults and those who believe that everything in education ought to be judged with one litmus test – what’s best for children?

This great divide is on vivid display in a lawsuit filed by the Florida School Boards Association and others against the interests of children who benefit from Tax Credit Scholarships.

Here’s how Tax Credit Scholarships work:  businesses paying state corporate tax can designate a portion of their taxes to help children in poverty, minority children and disabled children have access to schools and services otherwise available only to families with the means to pay private school tuition.  The participation of business taxpayers, the schools and the students is all voluntary.

Statewide, 59,822 children in 64 counties received these scholarships last year.

It’s not a giveaway.  On average, the income of a scholarship family of four is $25,000.  These families dig in their own thin pockets to come up with $500 per child, on average.  Often that means parents working extra jobs so children can attend a better school.

The scholarships pay an amount equal to only half what it would cost taxpayers for these same children to attend regular public schools.  So it’s a huge saver for taxpayers.  More than half the scholarships go to African Americans.

Now, the membership organization our local school boards support is using our local tax dollars in a lawsuit to kill the scholarships.  Their reason: “Those kids are our kids.  That money is our money.  We want it under our control.”  A revealing use of the possessive adjective.

If the lawsuit is successful, 60,000 students will be forced out of the schools their parents chose and required to attend schools that didn’t meet their needs, at double the cost to taxpayers.

Full disclosure: as a senator, I sponsored expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2008.  The program’s hallmark is the historic bipartisan support it has in the Legislature.  The year of my sponsorship I wisely yielded the closing speech on the Senate floor to the Democratic Leader, an African American.  He was brilliant. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats.  It’s about what’s best for kids.

In 2014, I successfully advocated for stronger fiscal and academic oversight for this program.  Students, their families and the public should know how scholarship students are performing compared to students in traditional public schools.  The Auditor General is performing detailed financial examinations to ensure good stewardship of every dollar.  I wish everything in education or involving tax dollars were this accountable.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is a national model of voluntary school choice.  It leverages the facilities and staff of excellent non-public schools to serve the public interest.  It gives lower-income children what we want for all our children — a chance to learn and succeed.

That is what angers the plaintiffs in this lawsuit the most — that families are in charge of their own children, that caring parents willing to make sacrifices can choose their children’s schools and, most troublesome of all, that resources follow not the needs of educrats, but the interests of children.

As a former school board member, I’m ashamed of the Florida School Board Association.  As Senator for Northwest Florida, I’ve chosen my side of the great divide.

Don Gaetz is President of the Florida Senate and represents Bay, Walton, Okaloosa, Washington, Holmes and Jackson counties in the Senate.  He is former Chairman of the Okaloosa School Board.  He lives in Niceville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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