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Public Money for Private Schools: Voucher Programs Set to Expand Across Florida

| April 9, 2011

© Pat Bagley

Lawmakers are poised to expand the state’s school voucher programs instituted more than 10 years ago that enable more students to attend private schools.

Under three bills advancing in the Legislature, all of Florida’s existing voucher programs would be affected in some way. But unlike when these major school reforms were proposed over 10 years ago, protests have been muted. Some Democrats, who were once ardently opposed to voucher programs, have even begun to support vouchers.

Even the Florida Education Association, which is opposed to vouchers, is reluctant to spend its energies fighting it. “There are only so many battles one can fight in a legislative session,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow.

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Though the voucher expansion bills will have relatively minor impact on public schools, critics see them as part of a larger chipping away at traditional public schools through a series of reforms. Those changes include major expansions of virtual and charter schools and reforming how public school teachers and school board members are paid.

Among the bills that expand vouchers are:

-A measure (SB 1656, HB 1329) that expands the definition of students who can receive John McKay scholarships for disabled students, funneling more taxpayer dollars into private schools

-A bill (SB 1822, HB 1331) that permits students who are in public schools rated “D” or “F” to transfer to a better-rated public school anywhere in the state through the Opportunity Scholarship program.

– A bill (SB 1388, HB 965) that gives corporate tax scholarship programs access to data on Florida’s top taxpayers to solicit them for donations and expands how much of a tax discount a business could get.

The McKay scholarship bill has the most potential to funnel more students into private schools. It expands the definition of eligible students from students who are primarily learning disabled, or have vision or hearing impairments, to students who have physical impairments, ranging from paraplegia to allergies.

By allowing students with “504” accommodations, the scholarship could be available to as many as 50,000 students. That’s the number of students that currently have that type of accommodation at a Florida public school.

To get a “504” designation, a student must have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to the bill analysis. Lobbyist Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students, said this can be applied to a student who has a peanut allergy.

“Why would a peanut allergy entitle my child to a voucher?” Cerra said in an interview Friday.

The McKay scholarship bill passed its second committee stop in the House on Friday. Groups such as Foundation for Florida’s Future, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush to promote education reform, support it. Bush was a big champion of private school vouchers and pushed for the first voucher programs beginning in 1999.

Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for FEA, said the problem with expanding the McKay scholarship is it opens the door to legal challenges.

The Opportunity Scholarship, which used to provide vouchers for students in low-ranking schools to attend private schools, was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court after it was deemed unconstitutional. Now it just exists as a voucher for students to attend different public schools.

Many fear the McKay scholarship would face the same fate if expanded.

“From a legal standpoint you saw a narrow incursion into what the Supreme Court has said is a prohibition of creating a dual system of public schools,” Meyer said of the McKay scholarship. “The passage of (the bill) threatens the very existence of the McKay scholarship program.”

Meyer said the FEA was slow to support the McKay scholarship, but has “seen the good” the scholarship provides students. Vouchers in general are also gaining more support from Democrats. Four Democrats in the House have voted for the McKay bill so far, and three have supported a bill that would help the corporate tax vouchers.

Tampa-based Step Up For Students gives vouchers to low-income students funded by donations from companies. Those companies then receive a nearly equal tax credit.

Backers say the once controversial program is gaining support.

“This program has managed over the years to attract genuine bipartisan support,” said Step Up For Students spokesman Jon East. A bill passed by last year’s Legislature that expanded the voucher award amount and allowed more students to participate was backed by “almost half of the Democrats in the Legislature and a majority of the black caucus,” he said.

Many black Democrats have long supported vouchers – because they’re often trapped in bad neighborhood schools.

Some Democrats remain staunchly opposed to vouchers.

“We have to be exceptionally careful when we talk about expansion of voucher programs,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who has voted “no” on the voucher bills that have come through committees he sits on.

“The question we have to keep in mind with any of the voucher programs is what the negative impact is on the school districts,” said Montford, a former school superintendent.

“It’s very hard to argue against parental choice…at the same time we have to make sure we are cognizant of the negative impact on the programs and public schools where the voucher students are leaving,” Montford said.

School lobbyists say they are resigned to their fate.

“It is acceptance of reality,” said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for several school districts.

He said the Republican-controlled Legislature and conservative governor support allowing parents the choice between public and private schools, a legacy that began with Bush in 1999.

The main complaint from public schools, Pickup-Crawford said, is that private schools receive state funding but aren’t held to the same accountability standards. Not to mention that schools continue to lose state funding.

“It’s siphoning money away from public schools,” he said.

–Lilly Rockwell

15 Responses for “Public Money for Private Schools: Voucher Programs Set to Expand Across Florida”

  1. Monica Campana says:

    Is accountability and improving education really what these changes are about? Has the data on charter and private school fraud been considered?
    When education is totally privatized in this state will teachers finally be paid as the professionals they are or will CEO’s get rich off your voucher? Looking forward to this political “experiment” crafted by corporate thieves who know nothing about education but know a heck of a lot about how to suck the government teat. Has anyone asked the 12 public universities in our state to study what really works instead of Ms. Rhee whose merit pay system was found to be fraudulent?

  2. palmcoaster says:

    We should all thank Monica Campana for her educated research and charter schools fraud findings. Doing my own time consuming research, I found the same criminal acts as well in many of them. This is about the same as the “private health insurance system we have today with rampant cases of fraud and stealing and many times directed against our government instituted programs like Medicare and Medicaid (Rick Scott Columbia the biggest so far) Just like today’s health insurance where 40 million Americans can’t have because are not accepted as they are part time employed, unemployed or just poor and can’t afford it!
    With these charters will be a time when they will deny students their education based in discipline or any other excuse . By then our public education would have been dismantled enough that will be no open door for these students, rejected from charter schools. Can anyone see the mayhem? Meanwhile the VIP’s of charters will be funding their lavish lifestyles with our taxes, supposedly to be for education. How more gullible one can be?
    Also if some teachers think there is internal politicking in the public schools today among teachers and their bosses, wait and see what that will be in charters, with no union to protect your rights and no oversight from the education rules as they are exempted.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    I forgot the most serious of all reasons that health insurance today is denied to many, “not to be accepted by the current private health insurance companies simply because a “pre-existing condition”.
    I can “imagine” and see a time when these charters will reject some students for “pre-existing conditions as well”. Then they will be forced to go to some schools run and maintained by dedicated volunteers, like the volunteer community clinics that take care of our rejected sick of today? Meanwhile our taxes we pay for that student, will be fattening the wallets of some charter VIP?

  4. christie2012 says:

    Whats wrong with competition? Imagine if Ford was only car sold in the country . The Public school system works that way know, let them prove they can provide a better service to our children than the private sector.

  5. Monica Campana says:

    Competition is great. Privatization is not the same thing. Some kids cost more than others to educate. Some kids have parents who can not or will not take their children to the “best” schools – we already have evidence of that in the trials. We need to make all our schools great so that every kid has a chance. We should be working together to figure out what “great” is. For most private schools it is the clientele and my personal belief after all these years in education is the beginning is the most important. We need more programs for parents from the time their babies are conceived until they send them to school. One simple thing has been shown to make a HUGE difference – reading to young children. Many low income homes own no books, don’t live near public libraries and do not realize what a difference this makes in a child’s development. The vocabulary deficit those children start school with is almost never recovered.

  6. Liana G says:

    I agree with you Christie 2012. When I had to switch my son from a private to a public school. He was placed a grade ahead. When my sister and her family moved from Charleston, SC to Gaithersburg MD, her sons were placed a grade below because they could not keep up, even though they were staight A students in their previous school. The difference was the quality of the education based on the income disparity of the two districts.

    A healthy dose of competition is always good in a democratic society. Maybe when all our students get a shot at a quality private education, they’ll all become equally successful and get as good a shot as the private school educated kids sitting loftily at the top. Then and maybe only then, we’ll begin to see a return of the middle class when the wealth is evenly distributed.

    On an interesting side not; several years ago the national reading standards that information was written in for the general public was at a 12th grade, forward a few years later and it was at an 8th grade. Today it is at a 4th grade. How is this prgress? And let’s not blame our immigrant population. America’s history is steeped in the immigration of peoples from all over the world. And depending on how you look at it , we can even point to the very first set of immigrants and say well they did extremely well considering they didn’t speak the Native American Language.

  7. Merrill says:

    It is simply not true that “the voucher expansion bills will have relatively minor impact on public schools.” Vouchers will remove from schools the better students, lowering the grade the school receives because of lower test scores and diminished average attendance. More significantly, vouchers will remove from schools a group of parents who tend to be more articulate and more passionate about education. These voices cannot otherwise be replaced, not when they sit as PTA leaders, not when they appear before school boards, not when they volunteer in their children’s schools.

    Ultimately they create a school landscape as desolate as the ones that our legislators, a priori, believe (erroneously) is now found throughout the realm of public education.

    Finally, the vouchers funnel your tax dollars and mine into private, mostly religious schools, tax dollars that would otherwise be used to pay competitive wages to current public school teachers.

    This is already happening under the Corporate Tax Scholarship Program that sent $106 million dollars so desperately needed in our public schools off to private, mostly religious schools. By the way, there was no tax “discount” for the corporations that funded this program, especially Walgreens with its nearly $50 million “contribution.” It’s a tax credit, a tax credit that leaves me and you to make up the difference!

  8. Liana G says:

    Merrill, DC schools are some of the worst in America . Several years ago someone had a brilliant idea to open a public boarding school, reliant on voucher and corporate funding, to give poor kids a shot at a quality education. It is strictly lottery based because of its capacity. Students are allowed to go home on weekends, and it addition to teaching the curriculum, students are taught good etiquette and other essential skills to prepare them for professional success in the corporate world. The graduation rate is 98% with many going on to colleges on full scholarships. It’s called the SEED School and was featured on CBS 60 minutes.

    I don’t mind my tax dollars paying for this. My tax dollars right now is being spent on a host of things I don’t like and care for. But this I approve of wholly.

    Here’s the link –

  9. Merrill says:

    You are absolutely correct, Liana G. The SEED School is a wonderful success, as are most American schools that spend $25,000 per year per student! I think we both agree that Flagler Schools should also spend $25,000 per year per student and I suspect our results would far exceed the success of SEED Schools. Unfortunately, this would require a 600% increase in our school taxes (see

    If you are ready to advocate just a simple doubling, a 200% increase in what we spend per pupil per year, I will happily join my voice to yours. We’d still only be spending $8062 per pupil—far short of the $25,000 per year spent by SEED, but I think it would do a world of good. I urge you to call for increased expenditures for the students of Flagler County!

    In Washington DC, the $7 million annual budget for the SEED School would do wonders if it were used in the public schools.

  10. christie2012 says:

    Washington DC schools, You could not have picked a better city to understand the real problem with the public school system. Education improvements=unemployment!!!

    Here’s the link:

  11. Liana G says:

    Merrill – I am advocating for School Choice / School Voucher, and for tax dollars to support this initiative be it directly or through corporate tax breaks.

    Christie – education improvements = unemployment for those that were in just for the money and milking the system. Rhee resigned because she was appointed by mayor Fenty who lost his re-election bid. She was snatched by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to push effort on school reform. She is also part of Rick Scott’s education plan which is closely aligned with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Lucky her!

  12. some guy says:

    IF it is about the kids what diference does it make where the $$ go as long as they get a good education?

  13. Sherrrrry says:

    Excellent Debate!

    Although I do not have children, it should be (but is not) obvious to everyone that excellent education is the key to our country’s future. There is a fundamental difference between private schools and public ones. Many, if not most, private schools are supported and influenced by a specific religion. Although I am highly spiritual myself, I believe there should be a separation between public fundamental educational processes and religion (especially at the elementary school level). . . just as there should be between church and state. The principals of religious freedom on which our country was founded, should also include the right to a public education free of any religious dogma.

    Bottom line though, is you get what you pay for. . . all of this is symptomatic of the strongly devisive class system in our country. . . that no one wants to admit. The rich get richer= more powerful and more greedy, and the poor are left with highly resented crumbs, while the middle class is greatly diminshed under the heel of what may be akin to fascism.

    As stated in an article in TIME , the Japanese are likely to recover quickly from their horrific disaster because the think in term of “WE” rather than “ME” . I wonder if our country could do the same.

  14. Liana G says:

    Great points Sherrrry

    Not all private schools are religious, and the schools under the voucher program will be gov’t approved, similar to the GI Bill.

    Sometimes I get confused with this separation of church and state issue. Mind you I am not religious, but when I see the ‘in god we trust’ printed on our currency and I hear ‘God bless America’ repeated after every political speech, I am not sure where the separation lies.

    I guess I am a ‘prochoice’ supporter in the true sense of the word.

  15. Anonymous says:

    How about tax credit for parents to choose school instead of corporate tax credit?

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