William Mattox: History project highlights debate about education spending

When the Florida courts consider several lawsuits filed recently by the Florida Education Association and other anti-voucher groups, I hope someone will call me as a witness.

That’s because I am a public school parent who agrees that some of our education tax dollars aren’t being spent in a way that serves the public interest.

And I’ve got a story that illustrates the public-private problem very well.

Last year, my youngest son took part in the history fair competition at his public high school. Since he’s a bit of a wiseacre, my son did his project on the 1950 Florida Senate race in which George Smathers supposedly smeared his opponent, Claude Pepper, with some outrageous accusations that weren’t dirty, but sure sounded that way to unsophisticated voters. (“My opponent’s mother is a sexagenerian, his sister is a thespian, and his brother subscribes to a phonographic magazine.”)

My son’s project took third place at the Florida History Fair. And when a scheduling problem prevented one of the top two finishers from attending National History Day, my son got invited to go to the national competition as an alternate.

Thankfully, our school officials had funds to defray the travel costs to Washington, D.C. And they not only reimbursed the full amount promised, they also covered a small amount more because “it’s the end of the fiscal year and we haven’t yet spent all our money.”

Needless to say, my son had a great time competing at National History Day. And I would have been thoroughly pleased with the whole experience had I not been aware of a great injustice surrounding this trip.

You see, among the students also representing Florida at the national competition were three middle school boys who placed first in their division at the Florida History Fair and also received special recognition at National History Day. In fact, their WWII documentary was so good that several local organizations invited them to show it at programs honoring veterans.

Nevertheless, these three boys were denied travel reimbursement from our school district. Their crime? They didn’t attend a public school. So, they were all expected to pay their own way. Even though their parents are all taxpayers. And even though the boys were representing Florida. And even though they were contributing to our community by showing their film at events honoring veterans.

It should be noted that one government agency — the Museum of Florida History — did not discriminate against these boys. It awarded bookstore gift certificates (vouchers of a sort) to all the Florida History Fair winners, no matter what type of school they attended.

So, what does this episode have to do with the lawsuits introduced this summer?

In Florida today, there are two schools of thought about public funding in education. One says the government should direct all education dollars to schools the FEA likes — namely, public schools. The other school of thought is more inclusive, similar to the Museum of Florida History. It says public education dollars (or tax credit scholarships) should be available to all of Florida’s children, regardless of what type of school they attend.

Lest there be any doubt, my wife and I like our son’s public school. And we’re very grateful for the educational opportunities he’s received there, including the chance to go to National History Day.

But we don’t want our gain to come at others’ expense. And we hope the Courts will affirm the inclusive philosophy of education that led the Legislature to create the “choice” programs now under attack.

For we recognize that many of the students attending non-public schools in Florida will grow up to play important roles in our communities. And we know that some of these students, like those middle school boys, are already contributing to our shared public life in very meaningful ways.

William Mattox is a political independent who serves as a fellow at the James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.    

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