Last month, Republican leaders in the Florida House of Representatives introduced legislation that would dramatically expand eligibility for school vouchers—public money intended for public education that is instead used to pay for private school tuition. It not only covers students regardless of their ability to pay, but it also includes private school students who have never been a part of the public school system.
Legislators often signal their priorities by how quickly in a session a piece of legislation is introduced. This is Florida House Bill 1. It’s backed by powerful lobbying groups and is being duplicated in other states. Similar legislation has passed in New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Arizona.
Like many other states, Florida offers a variety of voucher programs but this new legislation, if passed, would make it universal—that is, the legislators want make the public funds available to every family to spend, if they wish, on private school tuition.
Schemes such as vouchers—either through direct funds or tax credits—hand over public funds and public trust—the responsibility to teach the next generation of citizens, replenish our democracy with a discerning populace, and keep our nation strong, to private entities. What is asked for in return?
Not much, it turns out.
In Florida, voucher-friendly private school students are not required to take the same standardized tests as their public-school peers (not only must public school kids take the tests, but the schools’ scores must also be made public). Private schools do not have to report graduation rates or follow Florida’s academic standards and its teachers are not required to have Florida certification—or even a bachelor’s degree. And the private schools don’t have the same building codes as public schools.
Unlike public schools, they are allowed to teach a religious curriculum. That includes teaching creationism—and that evolution is a “fabled process”– and using textbooks and workbooks that teach that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. A textbook used in some of the schools asserts that the providence of God helped to defeat the Spanish Armada. “Otherwise, Spain might have kept control of the New World. North America might have become Roman Catholic just as Central and South America are today.” One textbook asserted that “the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior.”
Also unlike public schools, the private schools are allowed to discriminate, and ban gay and trans students and teachers–and many do. Some even reject the students of gay parents, or fire teachers who have had children out of wedlock.
It’s bad enough that the funds going to private schools starve the public school of much-needed support. But public officials, like the legislators in Florida and across the country who advocate for private school vouchers, abdicate their responsibility as public servants to keep our whole population well-educated and our citizens well-informed, leaving that role instead to unchecked, unregulated entities with narrow interests.
Long before the idea of universal vouchers came along, the United States worked toward the goal of universal public schools, open to all, and strengthened over the years with rules to provide equal access and efforts to weed out discrimination. Public schools presented the promise of democratizing knowledge. Universal access to vouchers promises just the opposite: a further fracturing of American life, deeper divisions between us, a narrowing of perspective, beliefs taught as truth, outright fictions presented as facts, and a population less prepared for the many challenges ahead.
In the Public Interest
PS: While the pro-voucher forces are on the march and backed by the likes of Betsy DeVos, don’t get discouraged: The pro-public side is strong, organized, and ready to fight back. Public Funds Public Schools will help keep you informed, including its voucher legislation tracker.