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Longboat Key Friday, May 10, 2019 6 months ago

School vouchers and choice for all

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Think back to the GI Bill and how those college vouchers gave our veterans total school choice.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

The first session of the Legislature after an election typically is the most productive for the majority parties, especially when they control the trifecta of the House, Senate and governor’s office, as the Republicans do in Florida.

Post election, lawmakers are eager to enact campaign promises and are more emboldened to address controversial issues because they are not preoccupied with playing it safe for the next election cycle. 

Matt Walsh

In this past session, you could say Republicans enacted more  decidedly conservative legislation than in any session in the past decade. Just a sampling: a ban on sanctuary cities; allowing teachers to have firearms in the classroom; moves toward more free-market health care policies by eliminating the certificate of need process for hospitals and allowing the importation of wholesale Canadian pharmaceuticals to help lower drug prices; reducing the rent tax on businesses; and expanding for the fifth time the state’s school voucher program, giving more families the opportunity to use tax dollars in private schools.

The latter legislation — known as the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program — has little application on Longboat Key, where there are so few children. But in the context of far-reaching legislation, this voucher program, which was part of a gargantuan education bill, keeps Florida in the forefront nationwide in the move toward the ultimate goal. The late Milton Friedman, regarded as the godfather of school choice and education vouchers, articulated that goal in a 2004 interview:

“Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go … If we had that, a system of free choice, we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”

Here’s another way of stating it: The goal is for Florida to have what amounts to its own GI Bill for education for every student in the state. Rather than the state operate its leviathan public school system that is burdened by over-meddling lawmakers and protective teachers unions, short of eliminating taxpayer funded education altogether (which we would support), do what taxpayers do for our military at the federal level: Give each student a voucher to be used at any educational institution of a family’s choosing. Attach the money to the child wherever he or she goes. 

We don’t need to remind many Longboat military veterans what the GI Bill did for them. We’ve seen estimates that nearly 8 million World War II veterans were able to attend colleges — many of them religious colleges — because of their GI vouchers.  

What’s more, there were no protests about veterans using their GI vouchers at those universities. It was the GI’s choice.

The results: That choice of education helped those veterans build what became the wealthiest country in the world and helped create what the most competitive higher educations system in the world.

In that 2004 interview, Friedman made the point of the effects of people choosing their schools — as they do with GI vouchers — on the quality of education: “People from all over the world regard the United States’ colleges and universities the best and most varied. On the other hand in every other international comparison we rank near the bottom in elementary and secondary education. Why the difference? 

“One word: choice,” Friedman said. “In elementary and secondary education, the school picks the child; it picks its customer. In higher education, the customer picks its school, you have choice that makes all the difference in the world. It means competition forces product.”

Florida is a long way from a market-driven, competitive education system. It’s moving, however, much faster toward the customer picking the school, toward more choice. 

Manatee and Sarasota counties offer multiple choice options via charter and magnet schools, many of which emphasize different specialties — e.g. the Visual and Performing Arts program at Booker High School; Visible Men Academy for at-risk boys in Bradenton; and the Sarasota Military Academy. The list grows every year.

Florida’s charter schools are nearing 700, with enrollment at about 300,000 students — still just 10% of Florida’s K-12 public school enrollment. And while these schools are freed from many of bureaucratic demands of public schools, they are still public schools accountable in academics and finances to a big, centralized state government.

To show how long it takes to make progress in education, Florida’s move toward school vouchers began 20 years ago. Newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush in his first session in 1999 championed his Opportunity Scholarships — $4,300 vouchers that were awarded to children in failing schools. The students could use the vouchers in private or religious schools.

In the same year, the Legislature also created the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, named after then Senate President John McKay of Bradenton. It was the first such voucher program in the country.

And then in 2001, the Legislature used creative financing to enact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income families. This program allowed corporations to take a 100% tax credit on their state taxes in exchange for donating what they would have paid in taxes toward the voucher program for low-income families. This program is the state’s largest, with 108,098 students participating this year.

But in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court derailed the Legislature’s voucher trend. The High Court ruled the scholarships unconstitutional. Chief Justice Barbara Pariente wrote they violated the “uniform” requirement in the Constitution (see box above). “This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools,” she ruled, “but also funds private schools that are not ‘uniform’ when compared with each other or the public system.”

After that, the Legislature concentrated on expanding the private-school voucher programs (see box below) by focusing on children with disabilities and low-income families. The logic apparently is that the voucher programs are giving disadvantaged children opportunities to have access to schools and educational resources that will meet the constitutional requirement of providing all students with a “high quality” education.

In previous lawsuits, parties have argued Florida’s education system disproportionately underserves the poor and disabled. With the voucher programs, the Legislature nullifies the charge.

In this latest effort, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, the Legislature has expanded eligibility for private-school vouchers to students whose family household incomes go up to 300% of the federal poverty level. Previously, it was 260%.

 So inch by inch Florida’s private-school voucher programs continue to grow. But as they do — especially as they remain focused on the disadvantaged and disabled — the Legislature is creating a two-tiered, non-uniform, unequal system. In the end, every student should be given a voucher, with all schools privatized and competing the way colleges and universities do. That’ll be another 20 years.

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