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When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new voucher bill into law on Thursday, it added more school choice options for families in the Sunshine State.
The private school portion of a previous voucher effort was struck down by Florida’s Supreme Court in 2006. But after his election last fall, Governor DeSantis named three conservative jurists to the state’s highest court, creating an all-Republican-nominated top bench that could act as a shield for legal challenges to this new law. In that way, Florida’s decision to test constitutional boundaries infuses a larger national debate about school reform – and the very nature of “public” schools.
“There’s always a bigger picture, but I feel like if you have vouchers, [the courts should] leave it alone,” says Chikara Parks, a Florida mom of four school-aged children using vouchers. “Let the people who need help, let us get it. Let us do what we need to do to give our children the same exact education that your children are getting. It shouldn’t be about anything else.”
Chikara Parks is a registered Democrat and a “huge fan of public schools.” The single mom of four school-aged children is also a fan of vouchers.
Ms. Parks, who is African American, has, with the help of Florida’s tax credit scholarship for families with limited resources, parlayed her children’s struggle in public schools to success at two private schools, Mount Zion Christian Academy and Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg.
The choice and autonomy have been empowering, she says, for her children – and for herself as a single mom. “It’s hard for some people to know their worth and know what they are able to do [for their kids],” she says by phone. “Vouchers help parents to understand that and be more heard, and that is an amazing thing.”
Ms. Parks has become an outspoken advocate for a growing constituency across the U.S. and specifically in Florida, where a constitutional battle over the approach is brewing.
On Thursday Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that expands the state’s use of vouchers, which allow taxpayer dollars to fund tuition at private and religious schools. The legislation creates 18,000 new vouchers with a ceiling of $77,250 of household income per year – firmly middle class in a state with low taxes and a low cost of living.
In 2006, the private-school portion of a previous effort was struck down by Florida’s Supreme Court. But after his election last fall, Governor DeSantis named three conservative jurists to the state’s highest court, creating an all-Republican-nominated top bench that could act as a shield for legal challenges to this new law. In that way, Florida’s decision to test constitutional boundaries infuses a larger national debate about school reform – and the very nature of “public” schools.
The new test reflects “a more clear-cut partisan divide in the courts, where courts have traditionally tended to rule simply on questions of church and state and where now conservatives ... see this as a matter of economic freedom, of making a choice,” says Christopher Lubienski, who studies school choice policy at Indiana University Bloomington.
The problem, adds Professor Lubienski, is that the political push for vouchers “has been accompanied by an ideological pushback against oversight. That’s why I wouldn’t call [Florida’s approach] a laboratory as much as pushing the envelope. ‘Laboratory’ implies that they are interested in what the results are. Here it’s more about seeing how far they can push it and play it out in the courts.”
Given a growing focus on kitchen-table issues by both parties, Florida’s legal test of equity, achievement, and accountability is likely to resonate across much of middle America going into the 2020 election.
The state’s voucher expansion marks “a tremendous moment of uncertainty [for U.S. schools],” says Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of 50CAN, a national school choice organization. “After all, we have been working our way down a series of policy ideas since the Clinton administration, and we have learned a lot. The world changes. The politics of the world change. We are relooking at our assumptions.”
Momentum in the courts
The issue has been intensified by a rightward shift on the U.S. Supreme Court that could have implications on issues ranging from school choice to abortion rights. Adding fuel to the fire, the Trump administration is pushing for a federal tax credit scholarship for families to attend alternate schools.
Unlikely to pass muster in a Democrat-controlled House, the prospect of expanding choice is already creating an uneasy alliance of Republicans with low-income moms like Ms. Parks, as well as white urban liberals who support choice programs because they don’t want to send their kids to struggling – and often majority black and Hispanic – neighborhood schools.
“More choices and more freedom in education will ultimately mean better experiences and more excellence at every school,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a gathering of education journalists during a question-and-answer session in Baltimore this week.
“I often cite Florida as a really great example,” she said, adding that even the students staying in neighborhood schools are doing better “because having competition and having comparisons forces [those schools] to do some things they wouldn’t have done previously.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that a voucher program, because it was part of a state’s overall effort to provide an education to all children, was religiously neutral. Four years later, the Florida Supreme Court sidestepped the question of taxpayer dollars going to religious institutions when striking down part of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. It instead focused on a “uniformity” of education requirement that it deemed precluded state funding of private schools.
Today, Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program may see a different fate, conservatives hope.
“The majority of the state Supreme Court now sees their role differently than the previous majority,” Jeb Bush, the former governor who led the state’s early school choice efforts, said in a recent podcast with the Tampa Bay Times. In that interview, he also called the voucher expansion “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Growing demand amid objections
Milwaukee pioneered the first modern school choice program in 1990, and 18 states currently offer some form of tax credit scholarship. Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana have made some of the biggest forays into choice, which today represents a mix of tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and homeschooling. The Democratic Party and teachers unions have historically opposed voucher programs, arguing they are a backdoor way to destabilize, even destroy, public schools by rerouting their source of taxpayer funding to private, often religious, schools.
No program, however, rivals the one in the key presidential swing state of Florida. In 1996, Mr. Bush’s bid began with four charter schools. Today, it involves $700 million a year spent on a dizzyingly diversified school landscape, large parts of which are only lightly regulated by the Department of Education. An estimated 1.6 million of Florida’s students – 47 percent of school-age children – now attend a school outside their zone.
Unable to directly fund private schools, Florida lawmakers built a massive scholarship system of corporation-funded tax credits that has now fallen short, leaving some 13,000 low-income students across the state waiting for a $7,700 year check to attend a private school. The new law is expected to offer them some relief.
“What we are seeing in Florida is the blossoming of the idea that different kids learn in different ways and also the realization that every school is not going to be perfect,” says Jon East, a former St. Petersburg Times journalist and current policy advisor to Step Up For Students, an advocacy group.
Weighing vouchers and equity
In-depth studies of school choice systems in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere have shown mixed results.
A 2017 analysis by Martin Carnoy, an education professor and economist at Stanford University, found scant evidence that students who receive vouchers do better on tests than their public school peers. To Professor Carnoy, that suggested “an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs.”
The big questions turned on the future of not just of those students attending private institutions, but what happens to the public schools. The Florida Education Association, which represents state teachers, is planning a May 18 statewide summit in Orlando to discuss what the organization says in a statement is an “attack” on public education that involves a “massive new giveaway of public funds ... to unaccountable institutions.”
Data has shown that voucher students tend to be more college-going, according to Northwestern University economist David Figlio, one of the nation’s top voucher policy experts. Professor Figlio also notes that emerging data from Florida and elsewhere shows vouchers have “modestly positive” effects on student outcomes. Proponents note that Florida was the only state to show improvements in three of four core competencies in the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”
Given those dynamics, Professor Figlio says the voucher expansion may ultimately say less about church-state separation and more about oversight.
“Can we as a society tolerate using public funds to send kids to relatively crappy private schools?” says Professor Figlio, author of several studies on choice policy.
For Ms. Parks, the parent, the battle over school choice addresses “something deeper” than politics. She says vouchers have given her a sense of true equity – that her children’s futures are as important as those whose families have more resources and influence.
“I just feel like with the whole Democrat versus Republican thing, there’s too much energy put into it,” she says. “There’s always a bigger picture, but I feel like if you have vouchers, [the courts should] leave it alone. Let the people who need help, let us get it. Let us do what we need to do to give our children the same exact education that your children are getting. It shouldn’t be about anything else.”
Staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed reporting from Baltimore.