Opinion by Sally Butzin in Tallahassee Democrat
Here we go again. The Florida Legislature is poised to create an expanded voucher program where every parent, regardless of income, can receive public money for private and religious education. HB1 also expands vouchers for homeschooling.
Public education is the bedrock of democracy. For 25 years the voucher system diverting public funds for private and religious education has chipped away at this bedrock. HB1 adds a sledgehammer.
Since the 19th century, American citizens have trusted in the covenant made between taxpayers and their government to use their money to benefit the welfare of the citizens, including maintaining an equitable system of free public education. Taxpayers have trusted that the government would provide oversight and accountability for the education of its youth.
Now for the first time in history we see taxpayer money being diverted to individual persons through a private organization called Step Up for Students (stepupforstudents.org) with little or no transparency or accountability. We also see that voucher language has been manipulated to fool citizens. Here are some examples:
Vouchers are called “scholarships.” A more truthful term would be “scholar-gifts.” Students have not earned a scholarship in the traditional sense, but rather their parent is given a taxpayer gift to spend on a wide array of goods and services.
Education “Savings” Accounts should be called Education “Spending” Accounts. An ESA is essentially a debit card for many non-vetted purchases including home schooling.
The most egregious language twist is to call Step Up for Students a “charity.” No taxpayer has willingly donated their money to Step Up as they would for any actual charity such as the American Cancer Society. Corporations are not donating funds from their profits, but rather diverting taxes owed to the government to this private organization, now valued in the billions of dollars.
Finally, “parent rights” twists the intent of a democracy to assure the rights of all citizens for a secular school system that welcomes every student regardless of disabilities and gender preference. Private schools need not comply.
House Bill 1 is a top priority for the governor and Republican leaders. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, maintains that her bill is historic and transformational. She is correct.
This bill fundamentally transforms our public education system, which has always been the great equalizer. Despite dwindling funds and over-regulations, public schools continue to educate most of Florida’s children. Rather than working to improve public schools, the goal is to dismantle them brick by brick.
Sally Butzin is immediate past President of League of Women Voters of Tallahassee, a retired educator and child advocate. She has been a champion for school choice and innovation with a level playing field that offers informed choice.