Misguided Education Bills Would Plunge Schools into Budget Chaos
In the wake of reports that Florida’s already underfunded public schools are facing the likelihood of massive budget shortfalls caused by state tax cuts, Florida legislators received a warning today that the sweeping new private and religious school voucher plan its sponsors claim will help reduce overcrowding will only make matters worse.
The proposed voucher bill is one part of a triple threat currently facing Florida’s schools. Recent news reports indicate that schools may already be forced to absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts because of revenue reductions brought about by tax cutting. At the same time, the legislature is considering a proposed corporate tax cut designed to provide privately funded school vouchers, which could further deplete state revenues by up to $1.2 billion. In combination with these other developments, the new voucher bill would deepen the financial and educational woes for schools that already trail much of the nation in resources and performance.
"Florida’s schools are facing a crisis brought on by years of neglect, and now some legislators’ response is to abandon them entirely," said People For the American Way’s Florida Director Lisa Versaci. "It is appalling that some in the legislature are willing to risk sacrificing the future of the next generation in their eagerness to put even more money into the hands of the wealthy."
In a letter faxed today to Florida’s House Committee on Education Innovation, People For the American Way’s President Ralph G. Neas and Florida Director Lisa Versaci advised the committee members that the proposed voucher plan, House Bill 303, is "an attempt to have the legislature abdicate its responsibility to provide uniform and adequate school facilities for all of Florida’s children."
Calling the new voucher proposal "unsound, unwise, and unconstitutional," the six-page letter details the many reasons why the bill should not be made law, including:
The plan would take money away from overcrowded public schools, thus reducing the funds available for new construction and other measures to deal with the very overcrowding that the bill was purportedly created to address.
The plan is structured so that most of its benefits will be reaped by better-off families that are in the best position to take advantage of it. Poorer families who cannot pay the additional tuition and fees not covered by the $3,000 annual voucher could not participate. But families with the means to pay for private schooling would receive a $3,000 per year public subsidy at the expense of the poor students who would remain in overcrowded and under-resourced public schools.
Private schools would be free to cherry-pick the applicants they prefer and to base their decisions on factors such as religion, gender, command of English, sexual orientation, academic achievement, special needs and athletic ability. (Only discrimination based on race, color or national origin is barred under the proposed program.)
Students with special needs, whether physical, emotional or mental, could be doubly discriminated against. In addition to facing possible discrimination in private school admissions, they would face an additional financial barrier as well. Since special needs children are more expensive to educate and the program would provide a maximum annual voucher of $3,000, parents of these children would likely face unfair and substantial extra costs.
The structure of the plan invites abuse. Any child currently enrolled in private and religious schools could become eligible for a $3,000 annual voucher simply by "enrolling" in an overcrowded public school and then withdrawing 30 days later. Many parents might see a month-long "vacation" from private school as a fair trade-off for up to $39,000 (K-12) in public subsidies toward the cost of that school’s tuition.
The proposed voucher bill does not make the private schools accountable for their performance. They would answer to no public authority for meeting any curriculum or instructional quality standards and would not be required to monitor students’ progress through the FCAT or any other tests. While there is some requirement that schools demonstrate financial integrity, even that requirement is minimal.
The sponsors’ claim that the bill is meant to be a temporary response to an acute overcrowding program doesn’t square with the design of the bill, which provides $3,000 per year for a child to attend a private school for the remainder of that child’s education, regardless of whether the local public school continues to be overcrowded.
H.B. 303 is unconstitutional. It would authorize students to use vouchers at religious schools, thus funding sectarian education, in violation of both the Florida Constitution and the United States Constitution. It would also violate the state’s obligation, under the Florida Constitution, to provide for a uniform and high quality system of free public schools. The bill raises the same issues that are now before the courts in Holmes v. Bush, the constitutional challenge to Florida’s existing statewide private school voucher program, which applies to "failing" public schools.
Click here to read the letter.
Click here to read PFAW's op-ed on the Florida voucher bill.