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Florida school voucher proposal threatens to fatally undermine public schools

Florida legislators are considering an unprecedented expansion of the state’s private school voucher programs. The state has spent the last decade steadily undermining its public schools by diverting more and more public funding to vouchers – and this latest proposal, SB 48, would critically undercut public education.

The legislation would merge Florida’s numerous existing private school voucher programs into two “Education Savings Account” (ESA) vouchers. It would vastly expand the ways these public funds can be used on private education – paving the way for a new privatized industry of education service providers subject to minimal quality standards and virtually no public scrutiny. For example, the bill reduces the frequency of already inadequate audits from every year to a sorely inadequate three years. This places tax dollars at even more risk for the type of fraud and abuse we’ve seen in similar ESA voucher programs. 

Astoundingly, under this bill, public funding for these vouchers would increase year after year, siphoning more money from public schools that have already seen funding drop by 30% from 2008 to 2018.

And yet, the private schools receiving money through Florida’s voucher programs are not held to the same standards – academic, safety, or otherwise – as public schools. It’s even been reported that Florida private schools receiving public voucher funds have falsified health and safety records and hired staff who didn’t meet background check requirements.

Most troubling is that students attending private voucher schools lose crucial protections that public schools must uphold. Private schools are not required to provide special education services for students with disabilities. As an educational advocate serving low-income parents in Miami-Dade County for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I know of families forced out of private schools because the school refused to offer the services and support their children with disabilities required and would receive under the law in public schools. I know of one family that cited this “bait and switch” as a key reason they left the state.

Voucher schools can also choose which students to admit or keep enrolled based on characteristics like a student’s religion, sexual orientation, or fluency in English. It also risks perpetuating a tradition of segregation upon which many private schools were founded.

Clearly, Florida’s students suffer as a result of such privatization.

As a former classroom teacher, I am troubled that under this private school system, Floridians lose the promise that a certified teacher will be leading the class. I have visited schools with untrained teachers who have not mastered the content they are teaching and are using untested teaching methods. The students’ failure to make adequate yearly academic progress in these private schools was hard to witness. What’s more, it’s well documented that some of these schools teach hateful, extremist content, with an article noting one textbook used by such schools refers to slavery as “black immigration,” and another textbook disparages Native American ideologies.

Recently, I saw another example of the high costs parents pay for sending their child to a Florida private school. It occurred when I helped parents who had sent their two children to a small private school in Homestead with tuition covered by a voucher. The mother, whose job was picking vegetables, and the father, who laid concrete, still had to foot the bill for their children’s transportation to and from the school, as such transportation is not free in private schools.

A work-related illness in the fall of 2019 followed by COVID-19 shutdowns caused financial hardships for the already struggling family, and the parents accumulated over $2,000 in debt to their children’s private school for transportation. The unpaid bill forced the children out of the school at the end of 2020. However, due to this debt, the school wouldn’t release their children’s transcripts or withdrawal notice – preventing the children from enrolling in another school, causing months of missed learning until I was contacted to intervene.

Like too many others, these parents didn’t know the rights they forfeited in taking a private school scholarship. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that voucher programs, including in Florida, often do not inform families about losing these rights.

Florida public schools exist to serve all children and must be supported. Despite the hardships and obstacles the pandemic has created for Florida public schools, they educated, provided emotional support, and even offered all students free breakfast and lunch during this time. Florida lawmakers must reject SB 48 and ensure every child in our state has a well-resourced, high-quality public school so they can continue to be the vital support every community needs.

Angel Pittman is an educational advocate serving low-income parents in Miami-Dade County, Florida, for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.