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Episode 6: Vouchers for All?

Florida’s private school voucher program was first enacted in 1999 for the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities. It was one of the nation’s first school voucher programs for students with special needs. Over the past 2 decades, the taxpayer funded program has grown exponentially.

The state serves approximate 185,000 students in five school choice programs:

  • John McKay Scholarship
  • Gardiner Scholarship Program
  • Hope Scholarship Program
  • Family Empowerment Scholarship Program (FES)
  • Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC).

Most K-12 students in Florida attend a public school, but Florida lawmakers continue to approve programs and policies that allow vouchers to drain billions of dollars from public education.
Wouldn’t your tax dollars go further to help all children if the funds were directed to update and enhance traditional public school classrooms and facilities?

The 2021 Legislative session ends with the Florida Legislature asking the Governor to sign into law  the largest school choice expansion effort in Florida history.

This is part one of a two-part series.

  • Part 1 explores the impact of vouchers on public schools
  • Part 2 explores how parents are navigating the school choice landscape and the unintended consequences behind a bad fit for a child. Part 2 will air on May 10th.

Guests

Transcript

[00:00:00] Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to “Educating from the Heart.” Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

[00:00:31] Tina Dunbar: It’s said there are two things in life that are certain and that’s death and taxes, but I think we can add another item to the list: vouchers. You know, when the Florida Legislature convenes its 60-day session, one of their main priorities every year is the expansion of private school vouchers. You know, those state-sponsored scholarships paid for with textbooks.

[00:00:54] Luke Flynt: That’s the truth. The House and Senate both passed legislation that will massively expand the vouchers. A family of four with an income of $100,000 is now eligible to receive taxpayer funds to send their children to unregulated, unaccountable, private and religious schools. We are one step closer to the ultimate goal, which is universal vouchers.

[00:01:21] Tina: Yes. Vouchers for all. We’re talking about giving private companies your taxpayer dollars, money that should be used on our local schools. Even worse, those taxes, those dollars, would come from the same pot set aside to pay for public schools. This shift could certainly have a negative impact on public school classrooms, students and the staff in them today. We’ll explore this issue in the first part of our two-part series on private schools.

[00:01:50] Luke: We’ll talk with Angie Gallo, an active and concerned parent, past president of the Florida PTA, and current Orange County School Board Member. Along with her is a Adora Obi Nweze, President of the Florida Conference of the NAACP, who is especially concerned about black and brown students and how they are impacted when public schools have their funds drained for these private vouchers.

[00:02:16] Tina: Your feelings on this voucher expansion being the most ambitious attempt to privatize public education?

[00:02:24] Adora Obi Nweze, President of the Florida Conference of the NAACP: Now, there is an issue for us with the NAACP because we do not support private schools. One of the major problems we have when we start talking choice, when we start talking vouchers, we also start talking desegregation and resegregation.

And we are finding now that our schools are suffering because of the fact that we have the voucher systems, and all of the other systems that exist that is privatization and what it is doing to our schools, what it’s doing to our children. And this fight is nowhere where it should be, because now you see it in our legislative sessions and they’re actually attempting to vote again, once and for all, to clean out public education. We cannot allow our schools and our country to be re-segregated again. We cannot allow that. We must fight that.

[00:03:30] Tina: Yes. Angie?

[00:03:31] Angie Gallo, parent and Orange County School Board Member: I’m concerned. I’m concerned about the students, concerned about our teachers, I’m concerned about the welfare of our state. So, you know, we’re creating a system where we’re setting up two parallel education systems, and we’ve fought this before, and we won, right? [In] 2012 they tried to remove the Blaine Amendment, and the voters overwhelmingly said, no we need a separation of church and state. We have Bush vs. Holmes that said “no, it’s unconstitutional. You cannot take direct funds out of our general revenue and put it into private schools, private religious schools, you can’t set up those two parallel systems,” which we’ve already done. We did it the last couple of legislative cycles with our Family Empowerment scholarships, which now directly comes out of our FEFP or our general revenue. So they’ve already kind of teed the ball.

And from that I know in Orange County, we’ve lost probably about 1,800 students each school year to the Family Empowerment. We’re going to get to a point where we reach saturation. And when that happens, what’s going to happen? There’s money to be had, so you’re going to have schools pop up on corners.

And so my biggest concern really is the accountability piece. It’s a concern for our students, it’s a concern for their welfare. It’s making sure that they’re receiving a quality uniform education, which is dictated by our constitution, and there’s no parameters in place. There’s no accountability in statute that ensures that when a child goes to a private school, that they’re learning the curriculum that they need to learn, that they’re learning the foundation that they need to learn, and that they’re going to be college and career ready. And that should be our goal. Our goal is to raise successful human beings that will contribute to the workforce and create a strong economy.

[00:05:16] Tina: A lot of people don’t understand the impact of choice on public schools. Some people would say that choice is defunding public schools. Legislators would say, “no, that’s not what’s happening. We’re actually helping you out by taking away some kids.” How do you see that as a school board member?

[00:05:36] Angie: So I don’t think choice is a bad word. I don’t think that choice has a negative connotation for our students. I think we need choice. I think that not every environment works for a student. I just don’t want it to be at the expense of public schools.

Charters are public schools. They have a lot of the same accountability, way more accountability than the voucher schools do. And we’re not always able to meet some of the really high needs children. So if we can send them to a really high quality school, high quality charter school that does have accountability, and we know that those kids are learning, I don’t have an issue with choice.

What I have an issue with is the lack of accountability, and the fact that a lot of time kids go to vouchers and they come back to the public schools worse than they left. And we have a lot of work to make up to ensure the success of those students. I don’t think choice is a bad word. I wish that the legislators didn’t have to tear down public schools to build up their voucher systems.

I wish they would recognize the wonderful things that public schools are doing on a day-to-day basis, the fabulous teachers that we have. I mean, we are the foundation of the community. Like anytime there’s a natural disaster or a pandemic, it’s the public schools that step up to feed our kids. It’s the public schools that step up and shelter our kids. We should be saluted or celebrated for all that we do. And yet, so often it seems like when you’re listening to committees or you’re listening to lawmakers, they’re tearing down public schools because they’re trying to raise up these other entities that don’t have accountability. And I just wish that they would stop doing it.

[00:07:17] Tina: I agree with you that all children learn differently, so a charter school, a private school might be appropriate for a student. And I agree with you in terms of the impact that it’s having on public schools. But you talk about the great things that public schools are doing right now, and you’re absolutely correct that they are doing fantastic things that a lot of people aren’t even aware of. But at the same time, how can our schools continue being good and improve when the money’s being drawn away from them?

[00:07:47] Angie: That’s a great question. And that’s an age-old question that we’ve been battling for years, right? And we’ve had this conversation. If you want to fund vouchers, you want to fund charters, fine fund them, but don’t defund, not at the expense of public schools and don’t defund public schools because we serve a need and we serve a population that needs us. And it’s incumbent upon us. It’s in the constitution that we educate, we educate our students.

And the only way that we become a society that has a skilled workforce or a society that goes to the polls, as Adora mentioned earlier, to make sure that their voice is heard, is if we educate them and they understand the value of their voice. So public schools play that role. I mean, you can’t tear down public schools. I mean, you’re going to tear down the foundation of what our country was founded on .

[00:08:41] Adora: Each time you say yes to the vouchers, each time you say yes to choice,  you are isolating someone else.

Now, let’s look at our schools. We have special needs, but when we’re talking about special  education and the needs of our special students who have these particular needs educationally, we can not go in as we’re doing and take the money, and they don’t have enough space for all the students to be seated in the classroom. They don’t have computers that can be used, they don’t have enough. They don’t have chairs in some instances The condition of many of our schools is not being recognized, and therefore the money that’s being drained from the schools is showing up by the condition of the schools. And what we’re doing to teachers is ridiculous and staff.

[00:09:49] Luke:  I think all of us are, you know, deeply committed to public education. There are people who, maybe they’re not necessarily anti-public education, they just don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. They don’t realize the impact that it will have on them. Maybe their children and grandchildren have graduated. But if the legislature gets their wish, and we do see a completely private system of education, that will impact entire communities. The people who don’t realize now how important public education is, will realize it when maybe it’s a little too late. Could both of you talk a little bit about how public schools serve, not just the students, but the entire community?

[00:10:34] Angie: Our schools truly are the heart of our community, our neighborhoods. And I think that we’ve seen that time and time again. I said earlier with the pandemic, when we have a hurricane come through, we offer shelter. When we had the pandemic, we set up food lines where we were literally feeding people five days a week. And it wasn’t just our students, anybody who came up to that line, that was a child, we were feeding them. We offer shelter; we educate; we have community partners. We create an educated workforce and partnership with our community partners through our CTE programs, through our apprenticeships.

Without public education, I think it would all just come crumbling down. I mean, we are the emotional support to these kids. We are their counselors. We are providing social, emotional skills and resilience, and we are sometimes their safest harbor in very rough waters. That’s what we represent to these children.

We help them explore; we help them innovate. We have FFA; we have sports. We offer so much to create this holistic child that I can’t even put my mind around or comprehend a state where there isn’t public education, because I just don’t know how it would operate. And I can’t even imagine how many students that it would hurt.

[00:11:59] Adora: The education in a community makes a difference economically, and otherwise. We don’t talk about the economic impact that education has on the communities, and the communities don’t realize it because they don’t invest in it. It’s very difficult, for example, to get businesses and other kinds of opportunities that school districts should be a part of in the community that doesn’t exist.

You shouldn’t have to look for jobs for children, if you were looking at working in a community and living in a community and getting an education in the community where all these opportunities exist for children, that you don’t see them being able to take advantage of. And I’m trying to talk to you about the fact that people who need to be doing things for the school district, they’re not doing it because we certainly need much more money and opportunities for our school districts and for our children.

[00:13:09] Luke: Adora, I think what you said earlier about resegregation is really important, and it’s a part of the voucher story that I don’t think gets the attention that it deserves. When you mentioned that, I thought of an old video clip from Doug Tuthill, who is the president of Step Up for Students, which is the largest voucher funding organization. And I’m not gonna put words in his mouth. I’m going to just play it. It’s like a thirty second video clip. To set the stage, he was at a school choice conference in Washington state. And he was asked “In this liberal place, how can they get their legislators to support private school vouchers?” And I think his answer, really says it all. So hopefully, when I press play, you’ll be able to hear his voice.

[00:14:22] Recording: Doug Tuthill, Step Up for Students: Start with a tax credit program. It also gives you a chance to build strong support amongst the corporations. And that’s huge politically, too. So if you have some of the, you got some incredible corporations in Washington, if you can create this scenario where they’re comfortable, you know, where they can, where they’re really wrap themselves around low-income people picking low income people of color, and that may, that becomes the face of the program. It makes it easier for Amazon or Microsoft or some of the other folks out there, Starbucks, whomever to come forward. And once you start getting the corporate community comfortable with it, you know, you’re really going to put your liberal Democrats in a very difficult position.

[00:14:59] Luke: Wrap your program around low income people of color to put Democrats in a difficult position. Adora, what do you think of that?

[00:15:11] Adora: Wow. If it had some truth ringing to it, it may be different, but that’s not the way it works. Quite frankly, every dime that’s taken to give to the voucher system, whatever its name may be, it takes away, the dollar away from the public school setting, and the very child you say you are helping has far less now.

[00:15:42] Tina: Now, we’ve moved to the Family Empowerment scholarship, which a family of four making $80,000 can gain a scholarship. My question is, have we lost our way? Has the state lost its way?

[00:15:59] Angie:  They’re setting up a system. And I do believe that we’re going to reach saturation. I’m an optimist. I believe a couple of things: I think that we’re going to reach a point of saturation where there’s just not going to be, they’re going to build a ball field and nobody’s going to come. It happened with Hope [Scholarship Program] . They created all this Dollars for Hope and nobody came, I think here in Orange County, we’re getting our first Hope school since the inception of that scholarship program. But they’ve put in millions, 40 millions,  if memory serves me, into a program when people didn’t show up. So what I’ve seen happening, and what I’m hopeful about is the strength of public schools.

I think that Adora is absolutely right. We have to be extremely careful that we don’t resegregate. We have to be very careful that we contain our populations, and that we interact our populations and that we keep them whole, and we do, for the best of our ability, we educate our students. I think public education has learned a lot over the last 20 years.

And I think we’ve learned how to be innovative. We’ve learned how to be flexible. We’re doing a better job of meeting the needs of our students, of meeting them where they are. Coming off this pandemic you’re going to see, you’re going to see districts across the state, do really innovative, cool things. The only thing in our way is the legislature. They’re the only thing in our way there, they’re the ones that prevent us from really, truly being flexible, from truly being innovative, because there’s so many mandates and unfunded mandates that are put upon us that [don’t] allow us to be as innovative as they claim others can be; well, treat us equally.

[00:17:34] Tina:  Adora, what do you say to that?

[00:17:36] Adora: They are far too many of us who don’t go to the polls at all. We are registered to vote, but we still don’t go. And then when the numbers don’t come out, then we’re upset. But everybody has a role in ensuring that we have people who will represent us, and not persons that don’t represent us.

[00:17:57] And we find ourselves, those who are poor, those who are making far less than than they should be making,  just the whole life of people in our country exists going down the wrong road only because we don’t vote. And we do not identify the right people, you know, the right people, those who really, really care about the wellbeing of others. And those are the right people that ought to be in office, and you will see them speak for us. You will hear them, and then you will see the results of their work.

(Music)

[00:18:38] Tina: Well, look, we know that money has been a major motivator behind the voucher movement. In fact, there’ve been several published reports on legislative ties to these private education companies. I’m talking about Florida lawmakers who were sitting on policy committees and voting to pass laws that help their private interests, possibly more than the students their schools serve.

[00:19:01] Luke:  You know, the League of Women Voters just did a great exposé on this, and we’ll have a link to that in the show notes on our website. Also, did you see the recent story about a private school in Orange County? And don’t forget the Orlando Sentinel series “Schools without Rules.” It has found a lot of improprieties. For all of the talk of accountability in the public school system, Florida lawmakers are quite happy to spend over $1 billion annually on private schools with zero accountability.

[00:19:33] Tina: And they say parents know best and will select the best schools for their child, but if the school is not up to par, they’ll simply transfer their child to another school. And that’s not the best way to educate a child. Without clear guidance, how will these parents navigate this new school choice marketplace? And what impact could one mistake have on a student?

[00:20:02] Luke: There is so much more to share on this issue. In fact, as we alluded to at the top of the episode, we’ll be dropping another episode, Part Two, in about two weeks. On that episode, we’ll talk with two parents: one who came to regret that she ever thought about accepting a voucher in the first place, and another who now advocates to help families navigate failures in Florida’s school choice system. You will hear firsthand the damage that can be done when these schools are allowed to operate with no accountability. You will not want to miss this conversation,

[00:20:37] Tina: That’s it for our show. We appreciate your feedback, comments and suggestions. Keep sending them in by email. Send them to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s heart, H-E-A-R-T at Florida E-A dot O-R-G. Also, if you enjoy “Educating from the Heart” please give us a rating and review and ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll see you again real soon. Until then, keep educating from the heart.

[00:21:13] Shayla Ivey, FEA Member Benefits: Hi, this is Shayla with another FEA member benefits update.  Join us as we prepare to launch our YouTube channel. On our YouTube channel, you will be able to find numerous videos, information that will assist you with logging into your member benefits portal, how to use your My Deals app on your phone, as well as one-on-one webinars with our partners.

[00:21:44] Andrew Spar, FEA President: We look forward to you joining us. Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools. Be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit FEA web.org backslash podcast. “Educating from the Heart” is a production of the Florida Education Association.

[00:22:09] Sharon:  FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.

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