By Paul Blythe
Florida Republicans’ universal education voucher program is already weakening the public education system, and the state has not even started dispensing the universal vouchers yet.
School boards in Florida must adopt a final budget by early September each year for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. And they usually have enough of an idea of how much money they will get from the Legislature and property taxes to start planning their operating budgets and capital budgets.
But this year, the Florida House and Senate are so far apart on how much of state public education funds must go to pay for the expanded voucher program that the financial planners for the Palm Beach County School Board don’t have adequate information to estimate how much the district will receive to operate this year, according to this story in The Palm Beach Post on Saturday.
Add to that the additional uncertainty of how much of their capital budgets the Republican-controlled Legislature will require school districts to share with charter schools for construction projects, and the Palm Beach County School District is already projecting it will have to delay four major construction projects previously under consideration: renovations at Roosevelt and Carver High Schools, and construction of a new high school in Riviera Beach and an elementary school in the Westlake area.
Universal vouchers and charter schools are both examples of Republicans’ long-discredited practice of privatization in government – of giving money to special interest groups, i.e. private businesses, to handle jobs that governments do better. Privatization has not worked with Florida’s prison system or child welfare system, and now it appears likely to diminish or even destroy the state public education system.
The difference, however, is that public education is the cornerstone of democracy – an institution so important to previous generation of Florida’s leaders that the state Constitution requires a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools.”
The operative word, a previous iteration of the state Supreme Court ruled in overturning Jeb Bush’s Opportunity Scholarship vouchers in 2006, was “uniform.” Charter schools and vouchers to private schools do not provide a uniform education, especially when neither of those alternatives are required to meet all the safety standards, much less the educational standards that public school teachers and students must meet.
As Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Mike Burke told The Palm Beach Post about the universal voucher program, “Our principals have advanced degrees, our teachers hold certification and credentials, our facilities are built to codes compliant with the Stoneman Douglas Safety Act, and we have an officer in every school. We’re up to 1,300 pages of Florida school law that we have to follow. Private schools have no regulations…
“You are going to diminish resources for the existing public school students. I don’t feel like this is good policy.”
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, explained the Republicans’ vouchers program, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 27, in even starker transactional terms: a “massive transfer of taxpayer funds to unaccountable, private and religious schools and corporations.”
The North County Democratic Club believes that preserving a uniform, high-quality public school system matters as much as any issue in Florida today. Click here to learn more about Moms for Sanity, a program we’re presenting on what parents need to know about school vouchers and other legislation affecting your children’s education.