The Sun-Sentinel published an editorial calling on Florida’s courts to review the state’s rapidly growing voucher program, which now enrolls 69,000 students. Despite the fact that the state constitution bans spending public funds on religious schools, either “directly or indirectly,” most of the state’s voucher students attend religious schools. In 2012, the voters of Florida defeated a constitutional amendment that would have deleted the language banning the funding of religious schools. The vote was not close: the proposal failed by a margin of 58-42.
The voucher program started in 2002-03 with a limit of $50 million, targeting poor students. This year, the limit on the voucher program is $358 million. With a 25% increase allowed every year, the program may expend $904 million by 2018-19. It is no longer limited to poor students, but is available to families near the state’s median income of $62,000 for a family of four.
So how in the world is it legal or constitutional to pay for students to attend religious schools in a state explicitly prohibits expending public money for religious schools?
The editorial says:
The lawsuit rests on two points. The Florida Constitution bans the spending of public money “directly or indirectly” on religious schools. Diversion of corporate taxes owed to the state through a nonprofit called Step Up for Students and given to parents as vouchers, the plaintiffs argue, does not get around the constitutional ban.
Also, the Constitution requires that the state provide a “uniform” system of public schools. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall calls the voucher program a “parallel” system.” Voucher schools don’t have to give the FCAT or any of the other punitive tests that have so angered parents across the state. Voucher schools must give only a national achievement test.
John Kirtley, chairman of “Step Up for Students,” which is authorized to administer the voucher program, actively lobbies for voucher expansion (Step Up for Students receives many millions from the legislature for its role). And its leaders in turn give money to legislators to protect and expand the program.
The Sun-Sentinel writes:
Kirtley and his wife gave roughly $524,000 in the last election cycle, almost all of it to Republicans. Kirtley also is chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, which successfully targeted voucher critics with roughly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.
Voucher supporters portray critics as hostile to school choice for minorities. Whatever compelling anecdotes supporters use, however, there is no compelling evidence the program is succeeding. Example: If minorities are benefiting, why do black students score 20 points lower than white students on those tests?
No state has a bigger voucher system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.
Florida is on the way to spending $1 billion on a program with questionable accountability that could be the start of an attempt to privatize public education.
Legal review of the voucher program is long overdue.