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Just imagine vouchers, growing wild like kudzu

Published April 4, 2003

You know the old saying about the camel sneaking his nose under the side of the tent. Once he gets his nose inside, next comes his head, then his neck, his hump and so forth, until the camel has accomplished what he never could have done by trying to march in through the front.

That's what is going on in Florida with school vouchers - the idea of using taxpayer money to send children to private schools. If some legislators in Tallahassee have their way this spring, Florida would embark on a dramatically broadened transfer of public money into private hands.

The camel's nose in the tent in the late 1990s was that we would "help" only those students who were in "failing" schools. We would use standardized tests to figure out which schools were "failing." We would give tax dollars to parents of kids in those schools to send them to private schools instead.

The camel's neck was vouchers for students with "special needs." Those mediocre, uncaring "government" (meaning "public") schools simply couldn't meet the needs of disabled students. So we would use taxpayer dollars to pay private schools to take them.

The camel got his hump inside the tent just last year. On Jan. 1, 2002, we began allowing Florida corporations NOT to pay part of their income taxes to the state. Instead, they could donate their taxes directly to private foundations that handed out vouchers. Even with this, there was still a do-gooder excuse for it: Voucher recipients had to be eligible for the federal school lunch program.

But, you know, for the true believers - those who believe that public schools are automatically inferior to any private school and those who believe that it is conservative to fork over the public's money to support private and religious schools - to them, none of this has been enough. We simply have not been getting public dollars into private hands fast enough. Not enough kids have flunked the FCAT. There just aren't enough disabled kids out there. Even the corporate tax credit was capped at a puny $50-million for the first year.

Fortunately for these frustrated folks, the citizens last November approved Amendment 9, requiring smaller class sizes.

The citizens who voted for Amendment 9 thought they were instructing the Legislature: "Listen, you guys, we really DO want you to do more for the public schools. We really DO care about public education."

But that is not what the Legislature heard. What the Legislature heard, or at least what the state House heard, was the voters saying: "We want you to take more of our money and turn it over to private schools."

This is why the House's proposed plan for carrying out Amendment 9 blows away any previous voucher program in scale. It puts aside all pretense of helping students in "failing" schools or students with "special needs" or poor kids on the lunch program. The new philosophy is: Vouchers for everybody.

Vouchers for military kids, for starters. The House would expand the corporate tax credit to cover them, not just the needy. After all, how dare you suggest the sons and daughters of our military should be condemned to suffer in the lousy public - sorry, "government" - schools? What are you, a Saddam-lover? The House passed it 74-42. Supporters said the opponents were not patriotic.

As for that corporate tax thing, who could be satisfied with a lousy $50-million? So the House plan would allow corporations to divert as much as $100-million next year. Meanwhile, the number of "scholarship" organizations getting the money, and the number of schools lining up to take it from them, mushrooms. The law requires only that these groups "provide" the state with an annual audit.

Finally, the biggest expansion of all: The House plan includes something called "Florida Learning Access Grants" (notice the patriotic acronym) which would cover ANY student. The state would let school districts pay all parents $3,500 a year to put their kids in private school. The bill even has kindergarten vouchers.

It is unlikely the Senate will go along with most of the House's plan. But there is a chance for some of it, especially expanding the corporate tax credit. Under the cover story of dealing with a budget emergency, the Legislature contemplates expanding a separate system of education, largely paid for by taxpayers, but beyond the taxpayers' control or oversight.

[Last modified April 4, 2003, 02:33:12]

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