The Florida State Constitution guarantees a Common School System to all students and prohibits spending public money in religious schools. But that means nothing to Florida Republicans, who are determined to hand out money to anyone who wants it to do their own thing. This is Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos’s Dream. Peter Greene warned us that the Republicans who own the state government planed to eliminate public schools. Now it is news.

The Tampa Bay Times reports:

TALLAHASSEE — With a few words to a small crowd in Orlando last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out a vision that, if realized, could rock the foundations of Florida’s public education system.

“For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,” the new governor said.

It doesn’t matter if the money goes to a public or private school — or even to homeschooling, he added. “To me, that is all the public’s commitment to make sure our kids have the best education.”

What he proposes is a major departure from the way the state has funded public schools for generations. DeSantis wants to greatly expand state-sponsored “scholarship” programs that he says would give Florida families a wider array of schooling options.

To accomplish that, hundreds of millions of dollars that now go to public schools would be diverted to private schools — an idea that Jeb Bush championed when he was governor, only to have it stall in the courts.

But with a much more conservative state Supreme Court and a Legislature dominated by fellow Republicans, there is little to stop DeSantis from completing Bush’s mission.

“What’s happening is real. There is an agenda, and this agenda is going to be rapidly pushed to completion in the next two years,” said Kathleen Oropeza, whose grassroots non-partisan group seeks more money for public education. “We really all have to be vigilant. Is this the world we want?”

•••

While state leaders have steered public money into private and charter schools for years, they are more aggressively trying to expand that flow of dollars this year.

The debate is consequential for Florida. The state spends nearly 40 percent of its budget on public schooling, which is mandated as a “paramount duty” in the Constitution.

Both DeSantis’ proposal and one pushed by Senate Republicans would fund a new category of private school vouchers with a pot of money typically reserved for public schools.

That’s a striking contrast to how existing voucher-like scholarships for low-income students are funded — with private tax-deductible donations.

Both proposals sparked a backlash among some Democrats. Sen. Perry Thurston wrote in an op-ed that the GOP appears “hellbent on sending its public schools into K-12 purgatory.” Sen. Gary Farmer called it “the beginning of the final stage of a decades-long plan to privatize public education in Florida.”

Many Democrats have long argued sending more public money to private schools only compounds problems in public schools by draining resources and students.

Miami-Dade School Board member Marta Perez, a vocal critic of Tallahassee, said these new proposals are a “cause for concern.”

“The system of public education is what has made the American system work. It’s the equalizer,” Perez said, adding that Miami-Dade is home to a diverse immigrant population. She worries about how charter and private schools have the power to turn away students.

The idea to use taxpayer funds for scholarships is sure to be challenged in court, just as almost every other major school choice bill has been in recent years.

And that is almost surely by design, as the new policy will be set on a collision course for the Florida Supreme Court’s decade-old precedent that outlawed using public state dollars for private school tuition.

•••

This push began with Jeb Bush, who came to the Florida governor’s mansion in 1999.

He helped create a charter school in 1996 for the impoverished who resided mostly in Miami-Dade’s black Liberty City community. He saw the state’s regularly low national academic rankings as a blight.

Thus the school choice movement was born. Its backers said increased private and charter options would force public schools to be more competitive. It was a marketplace solution that Bush and other conservatives said would help resolve the “civil rights issue of our time.”

Yet after 20 years, Florida’s high school graduation rate remains among the lowest in the nation, despite logging in bigger gains than most states. Its average SAT score lags behind the national average. Critics contend that such statistics show the Bush model hasn’t worked.

In the 1990s, he set to work immediately, creating the nation’s first statewide voucher program — called Opportunity Scholarships — within a year.

The state also created vouchers for students with disabilities to attend private schools, and tax-credit scholarships for low-income kids — now, two of the largest school choice programs in the nation.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, pushed back — its one-time president Ruth Holmes was the namesake of the 2006 court ruling that made vouchers that directly used public money illegal in Florida. But even before the Bush vs. Holmes suit, it was apparent the fight would be drawn out.

“It’s back to what (Bush Foundation CEO) Patricia (Levesque) said early on — ‘We have time and money on our side,’” said Jeff Wright, the long-time public policy director for the union. “They’ve eased it in here a little dose every year.”

Year after year, lawmakers have rolled out new ideas creating a web of new educational options.

But that steady advance has created choices that are “separate and unequal,” Oropeza, the grassroots group leader, said.

Private schools that accept state scholarships are not held to the same standards as public schools in curriculum, teacher credentials, outcomes or other key areas. Charter schools take state funds directly, yet avoid much of the bureaucratic red tape public schools grapple with.

“There’s no accountability for schools that take vouchers,” Oropeza said. “It’s all done on the backs of parents who can be left to make uninformed decisions.”

The rise in alternatives have helped prime a populace to accept school choice in all its different forms. More than 30 percent of public school students don’t even attend their zoned school anymore. About 100,000 children — the size of the Pinellas County school system — use scholarships to attend private schools.

“Over time, peoples’ mindset changes because the world didn’t come to an end. It actually got better because of parental choice,” Bush said in an interview. “The debate in 1999 was very different than it is today.”

Take Bush’s agenda to its logical conclusion and it would transform public education as we know it. It would empower all families to choose any public or private school — or even homeschooling — and be subsidized by taxpayer money.

This “universal voucher” idea would have the state dole out its education dollars to families to pay for whichever type of school they pick, rather than funnel taxpayer money to districts based on enrollment. No other state has attempted this.

“(Bush) made it very clear early on that what he was looking for was the universal voucher. … Write the check to the parent and the state is out of it,” Wright recalled.

Fast forward to 2019, and school choice advocates like John Kirtley, who founded the state’s largest tax-credit scholarship organization Step Up For Students, say now is the time to take that next step.

“They give a parent the ability to customize a child’s education to a greater degree,” Kirtley said.

Additionally, Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch, is set to launch a TV ad Monday aimed at convincing lawmakers in Tallahassee to pass universal vouchers this session.

Although both DeSantis’ and the Senate’s plans fall far short of advocating for universal vouchers, their suggestion that money from the state’s general revenue be used for a new category of vouchers opens the door, legally and politically, for that to be in Florida’s future.

If lawmakers pass it this session, the next question will be whether Bush vs. Holmes will hold.

•••

Clark Neily, a lawyer for Florida in 2006’s Bush vs. Holmes, is among the many conservatives who see the ruling as ripe for reconsideration.

Neily, who now works for the libertarian Cato Institute, called the 13-year-old decision “very bad” and “unpersuasive.” No other states have used it as a meaningful precedent, he said.

He pointed to the state’s voluntary prekindergarten, and McKay and Gardiner scholarships for students with disabilities — all taxpayer funded and used in private schools — as key examples of programs that have come out since the 2006 decision.

“That tends to suggest there’s a way to provide school choice in a way that does not run afoul of Holmes,” Neily said. Wright, the former teachers’ union lobbyist, said the ball is now squarely in the Republicans’ court.

Florida’s Supreme Court, bolstered by three conservative justices appointed by DeSantis, is “absolutely as conservative as you’re going to find,” Wright said. “All the pieces are in place for them to do whatever they want to dismantle the public schools in Florida.”

If the court is on Republicans’ side, then the questions become: How far will GOP lawmakers go? And how fast?

Despite their strong position, some key Republicans said caution is critical.

“I see a world where I think that parents are the best judge of where their kids go to school and what’s best for them,” said prominent school choice advocate Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.

He added that he agrees with DeSantis that the first step should be solving the problem of low-income students “languishing on a waitlist.” Next steps can come once that is deemed successful.

And at a time when education has become an increasingly partisan issue in the Florida Legislature, there are still those in the GOP, like Senate President Bill Galvano, who told the Times/Herald that universal vouchers are not his goal.

“We’re not guinea pigs. This is not a test lab,” he said. “I want a more balanced approach.”

For his part, the man who started the ball rolling two decades ago said he wants state leaders to seize the moment.

“I hope the Legislature is big and bold,” Bush said, “and sends to the governor meaningful legislation that provides more choices for parents.”

Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

30 Comments Post your own or leave a trackback: Trackback URL

  1. Chiara says:

    The keynote speaker at the big educational products convention is Jeb Bush:

    “The 2019 South By Southwest Education Conference and Festival kicks off March 4 in Austin, Texas, and the headliners for its ninth year promise an expansive mix of policy, practice, and personality. Beyond the keynote sessions that run the gamut from strengthening social capital to teaching kids about reconstruction, some of the more prominent workshops, performances, and policy sessions feature an eclectic lineup of thought leaders, including former governor Jeb Bush (March 4)”

    They invite a vehemently anti-public school politician as their keynote speaker, with no dissenting pro-public school speakers invited?

    And they expect public school supporters to purchase billions in ed tech product from the vendors?

    We’re good enough to buy their product but not good enough to get invited to their conferences?

    Only ONE opinion is permitted- that of Jeb Bush. Public school supporters are deliberately excluded.

    When Bush gave the keynote did he kick things off with his anti-public school diatribe about how our schools are “monopolies run by labor unions”?

    Why is this acceptable in ed reform circles? Would they ever invite an anti-charter speaker to an event like this? You know they wouldn’t. Yet anti-public school activists get the keynote.

    • retired teacher says:

      Bush and DeVos continue to pull the strings behind the scenes in Florida.

      • Chiara says:

        Could we possibly get one other person to opine on education?

        We’ve had Jeb Bush for the last 20 years. Surely there’s at least one other person who could be permitted an opinion and a platform.

        Unbelievable. All of these events are the same. 100% lockstep ed reform- the same people, over and over and over, all reciting the same slogans.

        You have to really WORK to exclude 90% of schools and insist you’re about “public education” but ed reformers manage it every single day.

        Our schools, kids and families don’t exist in this “movement”, unless they’re selling us crappy ed tech. Our kids are only useful or valued as purchasers of product. Other than they they’re invisible, because they attend “the wrong” schools- the public ones.

    • ciedie aech says:

      “They invite a vehemently anti-public school politician as their keynote speaker, with no dissenting pro-public school speakers invited…” How often has this been EXACTLY the case in venue after venue over the past decade…

  2. retired teacher says:

    The DeSantis’ universal voucher amounts to taxation without representation. We are supposed to pay for unregulated and unaccredited religious schools instead of authentic public schools? DeSantis won the election by a hair. He was not overwhelmingly supported by voters. Yet, he feels he can impose his vision on the state. The voters need to get the definition of a public school on the ballot in the next election cycle. DeSantis and Bush are trying to pull a “smash and grab” of public money in order to undermine public schools throughout the state. Schools owned by individuals and corporations are not public schools. They are not governed the same way and are not subject to the same laws and oversight. They are not transparent and accountable to the public. DeSantis represents the interests of the radical, right wing tea party, not most of the people.

  3. Chiara says:

    Is anyone who supports public schools or public school students or families invited to the 2019 South By Southwest Education Conference and Festival ?

    If they deliberately exclude public school advocates and supporters, can it really be called an “education conference” given that 90% of students attend the unfashionable public school sector?

    Just call it a charter and voucher conference. And, don’t come around pitching ed tech TO public schools while excluding public schools and public school advocates FROM elite events. We’ll buy from vendors who don’t work to eliminate our schools.

    The echo chamber is such that they invite an anti-public school activist to an event that is supposedly about “education” and exclude any dissenting pro-public school voices.

    Can’t have more than one opinion presented! It’s Jeb Bush or nothing!

  4. Chiara says:

    I’m reviewing the ed reform governors plans for “public education” and there’s one glaring (and huge omission)

    Public schools and public school students and families.

    Is it possible they don’t know public schools exist, or were we deliberately excluded?

    They don’t address us at all. Apparently our schools are their dead-last priority.

    Maybe we could consider hiring some public employees who aren’t ideologically opposed to the schools they’re supposed to be assisting. I don’t want to put them out by demanding they lift a finger on behalf of “government schools” – I know that violates their ideological vows, but can they really insist we pay them for doing nothing on behalf of our schools?

  5. John Cannon says:

    After reading this, I hear the sound of three massive toilets flushing:

    One is filled with taxpayer money.

    One is filled with the endless hours parents will have to spend researching, navigating, choosing, enrolling, evaluating, un-enrolling, re-enrolling the highly volatile ‘marketplace of education ideas.’

    And the third one is filled with the common purpose of building public institutions that push us all to collaborate, problem-solve, and work together to create a better society, and in the process help us all become better, more tolerant and far-thinking people.

  6. Drip, drip, drip, Republicans ideas and action erode the bedrock of democratically-governed, non-secular, public education for all children. They won’t give up until it is completely worn away into so many grains of sand in the wind. Of course, we need to resist. But, we also need Democrats who fight back with an alternative narrative and agenda. Here is what we need to hear from them and demand: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/3/1/1838659/-What-We-Need-to-Hear-from-Democrats-About-K-12-Education

  7. Roy Turrentine says:

    the voucher would not, as stated above, “empower families to choose…” It would, rather, contrubute to the wealthy families who already can send their children to schools where the ratio of students to teachers is low enough to assure small classes, personal relationships in instruction, and a modicum of freedom within the organization allowing students to develop self-motivation.

    Until vouchers total 40,000 a year, going rate at most good private schools, they are just bribes for votes. Parents who take the bribes might consider themselves above the rest of the rabble, but they are hardly better than the hardscrable voter of years gone by who accepted a pint of corn likker for a vote for the local boss.

    Tragically, court packing by an anti-tax minority is making it possible for state constitutions to be over-ridden by judges with agendas. Remember, even on a national level, our last two appointments on the Supreme Court attended the same high school.

    • dianeravitch says:

      The size of the voucher is so small that it only “empowers” students to attend low-price religious schools where they learn science from the Bible.

    • retired teacher says:

      The only people that would benefit from this proposal are the already wealthy that would use the money to supplement private tuition that they already can afford to pay. Lower income students would be shuffled to unaccredited religious schools and virtual schools of dubious value.

      • dianeravitch says:

        Religious schools in Florida are not required to hire certified teachers or to take state tests. They are completely unaccountable. They get the money and no one asks them what they do with it.

      • We should be happy that private schools don’t have to take the state mandated tests. It’s the way it should be, but not only for private schools but for the public schools as, we know that those tests are completely invalid, chock full of onto-epistemological errors and falsehoods.

        Why would anyone wish that abomination of malpractice onto anyone?

      • Roy Turrentine says:

        Duane: Private schools have their own allegiance to ontological and epistemological atrocities vis a vis testing. They choose things that make them look good.

  8. If Florida’s real public education system is being replaced with a get-rich-scheme of fake charter schools, then it might be a good thing that Florida will be under water soon.

    The questions should be: Once Florida is underwater, can we make all the Replubicans stay there and drown — don’t let them move to other states that are still above water?

    “Rising seas: ‘Florida is about to be wiped off the map’ ”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/26/rising-seas-florida-climate-change-elizabeth-rush

  9. Linda says:

    For-profit, schools-in-a-box, the Gates/Z-berg investment?
    If the boxes can be bought for less than the value of the voucher, the parents get to keep the difference?
    Great scheme to eliminate voters’ support for public education

  10. “For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education.
    It doesn’t matter if the money goes to a public or private school — or even to homeschooling. To me, that is all the public’s commitment to make sure our kids have the best education.”

    Now that’s a strong, convincing argument and surprisingly general: you can replace education by any other service or word, and it sounds equally sensible and logical.

    if the taxpayer is paying for something, it automatically becomes public something.

    But I wonder why the word taxpayer is in the statement? Why not just say

    If people are paying for something, it automatically becomes public something.

    In other words, why pay tax if it goes back to you so that you can spend it on anything you want? As the governor says, this is all about trust: if we trust each other as much as he trusts us that we’ll all do the best with our money, then we don’t have to pay tax at all, since what we do automatically becomes public good. Imagine all the savings on IRS, attorneys, CPAs. We’d be finally completely free to do whatever we want—all we have to do is do what is best for us. Who doesn’t want this?

    • Politician’s talking points hardly ever survive the scrutiny of logico-rational thought.

    • Roy Turrentine says:

      Nice comment

    • Roy Turrentine says:

      The important thing is that these people want my brother to pay taxes so that children can be indoctrinated with any hairbrained idea he would never teach his own children. They are not suggesting that we do away with educational funding, only that my brother, the taxpayer sacrifice his control of what his money goes for.

    • retired teacher says:

      DeSantis’ reasoning appeals to the oligarchs that seek to privatize most public services. They work behind the scenes and hope people do not realize what they have lost until it’s gone, and they realize they do not have the same rights or benefits. They have been working on the post office and the VA. It’s a false analogy that is a brainwashing strategy.

  11. GregB says:

    Desantis: “Look how far Individual-1 and I got with no education. Schools and teachers are so overrated!”

  12. They want to socialize the costs of religious education, segregated schools, and discrimination. In other words, they want all of us to pay for private bias. The common good is anathema to them. They want to sacrifice education for all in order to open up yet another arena for making money.

    • dianeravitch says:

      DeSantis, Jeb Bush, DeVos, and their allies have no sense of the “common good” or the “public interest.” They believe only in “me,” “mine.”

  13. Bob Shepherd says:

    Well, Florida will soon be the Wild West of American education. As if the state were not already strange enough! LOL.

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