Episode 23, Examining the Cost and Morality of Vouchers for All

Of all the education legislation passed this session, HB 1, the Universal Voucher bill, is likely to have the greatest long-term impact.

In this episode of Educating from the Heart, we are joined by Norin Dollard, PhD, of the Florida Policy Institute and Rev. Dr. Russel Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches.

Together, we discuss both the financial and the moral implications of Florida becoming the latest state to offer universal vouchers.



Andrew Spar, FEA President: 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 www.feaweb.org/podcast.

Announcer: Sharon: 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 Flint.

Tina, Host: Welcome back to another episode of Educating from the Heart. I’d like to open up with a quote from Mark Twain. No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it in the news, but Florida lawmakers have been busy at the state capitol because the legislative session is in full swing and public education has taken center stage. We are moving into the second half of session and look, I bet the majority of the proposals under consideration are related to education. I don’t know if you’ve seen the press or heard people talking about that massive Ed bill that state leaders are calling transformational. So, in this episode we’re talking about Education Savings Accounts or ESAs.

State leaders have renamed them now calling them Empowerment Savings Accounts available to all Florida K through 12 students eligible to attend public schools. But some parents are now asking, where is the promise of education freedom for their child?

Luke, Host: You know, Tina, if it walks like a voucher and talks like a voucher and quacks like a voucher, it’s a voucher.

I don’t care what the state of Florida calls it. Here’s the thing. Every child in the state of Florida deserves to have an education that challenges them to grow and learn beyond their wildest dreams. Right now, 70% of children are already eligible for vouchers, and they reject them because they know the best place to live their dream is in Florida’s public schools. What this bill does is it gives an $8,000 coupon to the folk who are already sending their children to the elite private schools where tuition is $25-$30,000 a year. So, taxpayers will now be funding for Tiger Woods children, and Donald Trump’s children and all the other children of multi-millionaires and billionaires to get a private education, but it’s the kids who are going to neighborhood public schools that will be left behind.

Tina, Host: Yeah, and that’s a good point and a serious concern for many public school supporters. That didn’t stop Governor DeSantis from signing this measure into law at a school in Miami. So, the ESA allows a parent to personalize their child’s learning. It is going to be available to close to 3 million students. They’ll be eligible to receive this voucher, and that will potentially shift some funds from public school students.

Now, I understand the state’s need to expand choice, but this might not be the best time. But you know what Luke? It is the right time for a lesson on Milton Friedman.

Luke, Host: I would love to give a history lesson on Milton Friedman, who is known as the father of vouchers. Back when Florida passed its first major voucher expansion in the 1990s, Milton Friedman was interviewed on NBC, and you can find the full text of this interview in our show notes, and among the things that he said was very explicitly that he wants every school to be a voucher school. Meaning that even those who choose to go to public school would have to use a government voucher in order to do so.

So, we often get accused of hyperbole at FEA when we say that universal vouchers will be the end of public education. But you don’t have to take it from us. Take it from Milton Friedman, the father of vouchers. That was very much his idea to end public education as we know it.

Tina, Host: Government funded school vouchers, hmm, I thought choice supporters oppose big government reaching into their lives and educating their kids.

Luke, Host: You know Tina, and that is why it is so important to not just listen to what people say, but pay attention to what they do. Because these same people who claim not to like government when it helps normal everyday working people will absolutely be the first people to sign up for government assistance when it comes to getting an $8,000 coupon for their child’s private school education.

As much as this issue is about funding, there is a moral component to this as well, and that’s the conversation that we have with some public school advocates, both about the funding and the morality of vouchers.

NORIN DOLLARD, Florida Policy Institute: I’m Norin Dollard. I’m with the Florida Policy Institute. I am the Senior Policy Analyst for education, and I am also the Director of Kids Count, charged with providing reliable data to people who make decisions about kids in the hopes they’ll make good and informed decisions. And those two roles frequently intersect; they do today. I am the product of public schools. My doctoral work, my son, same. His graduate work, you know, he went to UF, he went to public schools, the high school and all that and it was a very good experience. And I believe in public schools fundamentally in that they are, you know, really the bedrock of our democracy. I feel like they’re very threatened by the current environment. HB 1, in particular I think threatens to just destroy public schools as we know them. So, I feel deeply about that. Oh, and I should say Florida Policy Institute is a nonpartisan research, policy, organization, and we work towards the goal of ensuring opportunity for all Floridians, using an economic lens.

  1. RUSSELL MEYER, Reverend/Lutheran pastor: Yes, I’m Russell Meyer, Reverend Dr. Russell Meyer. I’m a Lutheran pastor. I pastor a small, inner city church in Jacksonville that is 145 years old. That’s one of the older congregations. It’s always been in The City Center, the core of Jacksonville, and I’m very proud of that.

It’s seen its up and downs over the years. I’m also the Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches, which engages the historic Protestant in black churches in Florida in common prayer and public witness. What we see in the state of Florida, in the intersection between politics and religion, those who have a religious affiliation and are receiving, on a regular basis, a message that overlies into politics, have a more present influence in policy conversations than the unaffiliated have. Because they don’t have any place, they don’t have a center of gravity that focuses their voice and their intentions in a way that can make it into the political process. So, when people talk about faith, in public life, they often don’t really understand how that maps out.

There are very active religions in Florida. They may never, in politics, they may never actually show up at the capitol, but the place where they weigh their influence is, is really in the ballot box. Right?

Host, Tina: Yeah.

RUSSELL: So that’s just sort of a lead in to say, I come to this conversation, around public schools as, Dr. Dollard said, as the bedrock of democracy. And when I talk about democracy, I define that as the will of the people. And the real question then is who are the people? Who gets to count as the people whose will gets enacted? Right? And our work in the Florida Council of Churches really strives to make every person in the state of Florida part of that people whose will gets enacted.

And what we see in our political process is really trying to limit who qualifies as the people whose will is getting enacted. Public schools are the place where people cross, you know, cultural and life experience boundaries. They cross heritage boundaries, and they learn how to interact, retaining their own identity, but living in the world with peace and love and hope and respect and dignity for others.

And no other educational system in the state of Florida, other than public schools, actually prepare all of the people in the state of Florida to be active in a way in which the will of the people could be enacted.

Tina, Host: So there’s a belief among some parents and legislators that school choice is good for Florida public schools, that vouchers allegedly free up funding for public schools, for school districts. So, would you agree with that? Have you seen or heard any evidence?

NORIN: I can tell you that, you know, we’ve looked at the funding of vouchers to date, the called scholarships in Florida and there is absolutely. Money is being drained from public schools. It’s not freeing up funds for public schools by these vouchers, or scholarships. The money comes directly from general revenue which is the money we use to govern. And we use it for schools, we use it for healthcare, we use it for all the things that we expect governments to do, and money’s leaving the public school coffers at a rate now without any changes, the voucher program, the Florida Empowerment Scholarships, it’s already 1.4 billion dollars. We know that. And, there’s no money going to, more money going to public schools, as a result of parent choice.

Tina Host: And it’s funny you mentioned that because FEA has done its own estimate, estimation in terms of potential costs, adding in HB 1. Luke and I believe we are at what, 2.5 to possibly 4 billion, depending upon how many students and the circumstances.

NORIN: We looked at that very conservatively. The Florida Policy Institute and the Education Law Center and using as conservative math as we could, we are going to 4 billion in the first year.

Luke, Host: Yeah. And you know, a number like 4 billion right? Is so hard to conceptualize. One of the things that I was curious about, again, I taught middle school for 12 years, so what does that look like at a school? And I actually did the math for just the current numbers. The 1.4 billion that you mentioned, and there are 3067 public schools in Florida so, the division is really easy, and that winds up on average, every school loses a little more than $400,000 to these voucher schools. And, I just think of all the good that could have happened at my school, with an additional $400,000, you know, be that additional mental health counselors or uniforms for the band.

RUSSELL: Now I’m not gonna weigh in on the math but what I’m going to say is the math is a distraction of what the intention is here. These are really dog whistles. So, I wanna go back, Tina, and just be clear, on what you reported and that is, that this would somehow relieve burden upon school. So, what’s the burden that they’re talking about? What’s, what’s the unnamed burden that they are talking about? And at that point, it’s not an economic burden. It is particular students in particular schools, in particular settings that they’re trying to bleed off into what they know are unaccredited, insufficiently resourced often, in substandard classroom settings that often times aren’t able to run the distance for the whole school year, right? But they’re out of the system. They’re no longer our responsibility. And something that didn’t come out clearly in the recent hearing is that once you leave the public school system and go to one of these other schools, you have no remedy from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

You surrender your rights and you know, we heard the bill sponsor over and over again say, you get to keep your rights. You don’t get to keep your rights if you don’t have a legal arm that says, I can seek remedy for having them been lost. And so, by taking the Office of Civil Rights out of the lives of these students, they are intentionally destroying their future. And so, one of the difficulties that we have in the current environment is being able to have a platform. Where we can actually break down what is being said so that we can actually say the, the unnamed what the real, if not maybe intent is too much, but the real outcome of this work that, and so, it’s more than numbers, right? It’s real lives. It’s real students. It’s the diversity, it’s the next George Washington Carvers, W.D. Dubois and Frederick Douglass’, that’s who’s being kicked out of these schools and sent to inferior second class schools who will render them a diploma that will not get them into a college.

Tina, Host: This all seems a bit disingenuous. Are state leaders being honest with parents and the public about these new vouchers? When the state first started down the path, we were told – we, being parents, educators, and the public – that voucher scholarships were necessary to help students escape low performing. Instead of investing in those students with focus funding for specialized curriculum to help those students excel, the state has established these systems to funnel students out of public education. If ESAs are supposed to help low-income students who are struggling to learn, then why has the state removed income restrictions to allow millionaires and billionaires to bank this taxpayer money for public education?

Those families can afford to pay the full tuition for the very best K through 12 private and religious schools. And those schools have longstanding track records of educational excellence. They cost a lot more than the value of that voucher, which will be about what? $8 – $9,000? This is so misleading. Low-income students are supposed to be prioritized in this. Really? What’s left for those parents if they can’t afford to pay for the school of their choice, and how does that help them find the right fit for their child? Actually, I doubt any quality private school would even accept these vouchers. I certainly can understand why some parents would see this as a deceptive policy.

RUSSELL: I know this from our own family experience, which I could share more about, but the cost of equality, private school at the elementary or secondary level is pretty much the same as the cost of education at a private college. They all, it’s the same business model. Why wouldn’t it have the same cost?

Tina, Host: So, yeah, it is college money, right?

RUSSELL: You’re right. Exactly. And so, even if you look at the $10,000 to $11,000 number, rounding up a little bit for those with unique needs, that’s still only a third of what the tuition is. Right? And so, that’s very, it is very problematic. We entered the public school system in Florida in the mid-nineties.

Our youngest son had learning disabilities. We had to go outside the system to get testing done for kindergarten. Otherwise, we were gonna have to wait two years before we could get the testing done in the school because of the backlog. So, this is in the nineties, right? But we were able to hire the same school psychologist off hours to do the testing that would’ve done it two years later. So, our son would, if we didn’t have the resources, our son would’ve been two years delayed. Now, as I tell this story, you have to understand, education in the nineties was a whole lot better than it is now. You’ll understand why I think when I get finished. Our son was put in a self-contained classroom, 12 students, a wide range of learning, concerns. The teacher wore headphone and, microphone and could teach, instruct each student individually as needed. Right? It was wonderful and fantastic. Then Jeb Bush became governor, and he killed self-containment classrooms. Took all those students and put them in with EH. Now learning disabilities and emotional handicaps are not the same thing, but he bundled them all together and gave them 2 Para’s, teachers assistants in there. It was chaos. Our son’s learning ground to a halt, and he killed summer school too, and so there was no continuum of learning going on. Those two actions forced us to put our son into a special ed private religious school because we could find it there. He finished grade school there and they didn’t have all of his appropriate needs, but it was a better environment.

The problem in the nineties was not enough schools had access to self -containment dollars. You know, it was, it was the good suburban schools had access. They needed to push that to a lot of other schools. That’s what needed to be done. But we killed it instead for vouchers.

We brought, came back into the middle school. He had great help in middle school. When we went to high school, they said, oh, well now you gotta handle yourself. We don’t care how big your IEP is, but you, you’re gonna go to college, you gotta handle your own problems. So, we had to take him out again and put him in a school where you wouldn’t have to take the FCAT in order to graduate.

So, we lived the history of intentionally deep funding, public education under choice and vouchers, and having to go out there and find out that there is no other institution. I mean, we, we sent our son to the Catholic church. They have a large school system. They tried to do this. There is no other educational institution that can come close to what the public schools can do if they’re funded properly. We spend less per capita income in public education than any state in the nation. That’s the problem.

Tina, Host: It’s interesting you said that education was better in the nineties than it is right now, and you have firsthand experience. Would you say that we’re doing, is this guy doing any justice for our students? Everybody’s shaking their head.

NORIN: It’s, it’s not about, certainly not. I mean, you know, the nineties, I mean, that was the beginning. It was, you know, the the camel’s nose under the tent. Oh, we’re gonna give vouchers to kids with disabilities. Oh, well, who’s gonna argue with that? And then, you know, slowly, I mean, very calculatedly over, you know, the last 20 years, 30 years, they’ve been expanding and expanding and expanding the eligibility, whether it’s through the tax credits or the, the voucher scholarships. It’s very, very systematic, unraveling of public education.

RUSSELL: We, we need to again, break that down. The Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education had a set of rules. Among those rules were least restrictive environment. Now, when you take, a child with severe disabilities, both physical, mental, emotional, and learning, and then craft the appropriate, least restrictive environment in which they can progress with high quality education. That’s a high cost. And by doing vouchers and giving them money and letting them leave the system, suddenly their federal rights are surrendered.

NORIN: And HB 1, specifically reminds us of that. And it’s, I mean, they wouldn’t have to write it because it’s parental choice. And if you make that choice to send your kid to a private school, then you give up your federal protections that you would have in public schools. And HB 1 has language that specifically reminds us of that fact that parents are giving up their federal protections by accepting the voucher and that they’re on their own. There’s no help.

RUSSELL: Right. But let’s, let’s be very clear. By pushing people out, then they know they are making certain they can’t be held liable for their education.

And we should think about this because it’s a direct repudiation of the Florida Constitution that the responsibility of the state, and I listened to a representative talk about the government head of monopoly on schools for so long, and I just like, I mean, you guys, you guys have designed the policy for the last 25 years. The mess we’re in is the mess you made. Don’t come to me talking about monopoly. I mean, that’s a board game. But this idea that I have the right to choose a lesser outcome for my child’s future because it’s my child.

Luke, Host: Yeah. And I, I really appreciate the moral clarity that you are bringing to this issue and I have to believe, that as more people gain a better understanding of that, they will share our moral outrage. And when they get there, they might want to fight back, to make sure that public schools are actually well funded and can provide that constitutionally mandated education. I’m wondering if either of you have advice for parents who, or anyone in the public, who is interested in that fight on what might be the best way to pursue it.

NORIN: If we’re gonna turn this train or at least get onto a sidecar, we need parents desperately to talk to their, you know, their legislators and we need parents who love public schools. Like me! I love public schools. My kid had a great experience. So, people like me are passionate and we should say that. You know, using these vouchers and letting people know that, you know, the, there’s no accountability. There’s no oversight and besides you give up your rights. I really think that educating parents and educating the legislators because they need some better information about the actual effect of these things on their constituents and their constituents’ kids. And they’re not, they’re not getting it.

RUSSELL: And what we need to do is spend 50% more this year and then 50% more the next year, and we’ve got the money sitting in the treasury. We could do that, and we would then take Florida from being the bottom of long-term educational returns to at least crawling back up to something respectable. You look at the elected officials who actually run charter schools and are involved in private schools, how they’re pushing and voting for this stuff. If we were talking about Wall Street companies, they’d have to be putting everything into a blind trust and so Luke, you talked about, you know, the moral argument, when you know you are making policy that will put public dollars in your pocket at the expense of delivering a quality product to the victims of your conspiracies. Um, well, I guess I’ve said enough.

Tina, Host: Luke, do you know that the governor signed this law at a private Catholic school in Miami? And I happened to look at the school’s website. The annual tuition for that school is like $15,000. In other words, the voucher won’t even cover it.

Luke, Host: and soon enough, the tuition at that school will be $23,000 and so the parents who are sending their children there will contribute the same amount and they will contribute the $8,000 coupon they got from the government.

Tina Host: I think it kind of makes our point, but also, during testimony, during the committee meetings, there were a number of choice supporters who stood up and they told lawmakers that they like what they’re doing. They’ve been dealing with choice for years, but they stated that this legislation is not the right legislation for Florida at this time, in part because we don’t have the educational infrastructure in place. One gentleman actually broke it down by the numbers, and we’ll try to have some of that information in our show notes but basically what he said is 60% of the private schools are not quality private schools, not like the schools that have been operating for a long time and have a long history of educational excellence. And the other important point that he made, the majority of our private schools are really located in our five largest communities. Places like Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, the bigger cities. So, what do you do for all the other students throughout the state?

Luke, Host: You know, Tina, the proponents of this bill would say that they are funding students. Not systems. Let’s be real about that for a moment. Florida right now is in the bottom five in the nation when it comes to per student funding.

If we were in the top five for per student funding, this would be a very, very different conversation. But right now, we’re in the bottom five and this bill funds four separate systems. It funds a private system, a charter, a homeschool system and it funds those three to the exclusion of the fourth system, which is actually the system that the vast majority of children attend because they know that our public schools are the best place to achieve their American dream, and that is why it is problematic.

Tina, Host: I hear what you’re saying Luke, but consider this, a lot of schools will open up with their hands out for this free money.

Luke, Host: And we already know what will happen with those fly by night voucher schools because we see it happening right now. Students will enroll and then they will unenroll, the vast majority go back to their public schools within three years. That is in every study that the FSU Learning Sciences Institute has done. It’s not just that they go back to their public schools, but when they return to public schools, they are further behind than their peers who never left.

Tina, Host: We’ll have to see how it works out, Luke, but it reminds me of a podcast that we recorded several years ago with a parent who took advantage of a voucher and placed her child in what became a fly by night school, and it did not work out well for her student. So, we’ll place a link to that in our show notes.

Now, the state has a plan to have a, some sort of education navigator, to work with parents so that they can make the right choices for their students. I don’t know, I am questioning whether it will really give parents all the information that they need. And I guess we’ll find out the next time we meet. So, until then, keep educating from the heart.

If you enjoy our podcast, ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe in our website at feaweb.org/educatingfromtheheart. Send your comments and feedback to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s heart, h e a r t @floridaea.org or you can leave a voicemail at 850-201-3384. Educating From the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association.

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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