Plans For School Voucher Expansion In Florida Sparks Fiery Debate

Feb 19, 2018

Two main views tend to emerge when it comes to the topic of school vouchers.

Advocates say they give disadvantaged kids access to better schools. But opponents say vouchers drain money and resources from traditional public schools.  

A new proposal by Florida lawmakers is reigniting debate on both sides of the voucher camp.

A bill passed by the House and working its way through the Senate, would create the first of its kind school voucher program in the country. It would allow kids who are bullied in public schools to obtain state vouchers to offset tuition at a private school.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is one of the most vocal proponents of school vouchers in the legislature and is a big proponent of the “Hope Scholarship."

"Those children are forced day in and day out to go back to that school where they are subject to violence and abuse,” he said. “And what we have learned is that where there is intimidation and violence and abuse, that child's learning pretty much ceases to exist."

The Hope Scholarship would be paid for by taxpayers who voluntarily designate a portion of fees associated with a new car purchase, in return for a tax credit.

The plan derives its name from a law passed last year. "Schools of Hope" set aside $140 million dollars of public money to subsidize charter schools that open within a 5 mile radius of a low performing public school.

"And that's what we call them “Hope Scholarships”, and that's why they’re called “Schools of Hope,” said Corcoran. “Because what you're finally giving that child is hope that yes they can go out there and have their slice of the American dream, and yes they can go out there and have their slice of economic opportunity."

But, as the bill's opponents point out, there are already laws that address school bullying. Florida law even ties school district's funding to compliance of state policies.

That's why some lawmakers, like representative Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, contend that the “Hope Scholarship” is really a thinly veiled attempt at a greater push for charter school expansion in Florida.

"I'm not the first person to suggest that proponents of this approach won't be satisfied until our education system has been entirely privatized,” she said.

And, as she and others have noted, the “Hope Scholarship” does nothing to address the root cause of bullying.   

"I have an idea,” she said. “Why don't we take these resources and put them into existing anti- bullying programs and to providing social workers, guidance counselor’s, and afterschool programs that can support all of our kids in every single public school."

Florida's got one of the largest school choice programs in the country. It’s called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It’s paid for by an income tax credit for corporations. Last year, close to 107,000 students were awarded scholarships throughout the state. And under a new proposal in the Florida House, part of a larger tax package could generate $150 million in sales tax to the state's voucher programs.

Sue Legg is a professor at the University of Florida, and a member of the Florida League of Women Voters Education team. She says it’s tough to blame parents who leave public schools for the hope of something better, but the results may not be what they expect.

"When you take that same pot of money for education in Florida and you divide it among charters, and tax credit scholarship private schools and public schools, no one sector has enough to do the job well.”

Additionally, she points out, private schools do not have the same accountability requirements as public schools. For example, special needs students who use vouchers lose most of the protections of the federal "Individuals With Disabilities Education Act." If a bullied public school student were to use a voucher to go to private school, they may not be aware that those schools are not legally required to have anti-harassment policies.

"And I think this is something that the public really needs to tune into because parents don't have sufficient information to make good choices,” said Legg.

Evidence that vouchers produce significant learning gains are mixed. A 2017 study by the Urban Institute found voucher students in Florida were 15 percent more likely to enroll in state colleges than their public school peers. But that data was compiled between 2004 and 2010. The program has since tripled and the author of the study, in a followup note for the Brookings Institute, now says there is little evidence on how the program has evolved.

But there is one thing people on both sides of the voucher debate can agree on.

Policies enacted now, will effect Florida students for many years to come.