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Legislature plays fast and loose with the people's voucher money

Read six paragraphs before sending me a nasty e-mail.

Published December 19, 2003

The trouble with liberal Democrats is they don't know a thing about how to handle tax dollars responsibly.

No, ma'am. A Democrat politician gets some fool idea in his head for a new government program, and rushes right out to throw the public's money at it.

Even if that money gets wasted, or stolen, it doesn't matter. They don't like audits, or accounting, or any of that stuff. If their buddies get rich, that's just fine.

Yep, liberal Democrats can't be trusted with our money.

Except ... except for one little thing.

That is exactly how the supposedly "conservative" Republicans who control the Florida Legislature have behaved when it comes to school vouchers.

In their zeal to transfer the public's money into private schools, our lawmakers have deliberately refused to account for how it is being spent.

Florida now has three young but fast-growing voucher programs. One is for kids with disabilities. One is for poor kids. One is for kids in "failing" schools.

So far, they serve only about 24,000 students, at a cost this year of about $135-million. But they are poised to grow. And rarely has a government program been created and pumped up so fast, with so little oversight.

There's not even the most basic matchup between dollars in and dollars out, to verify where the money is going, whether students are getting it, whether schools are doing what they're supposed to.

Florida's chief financial officer, Tom Gallagher, has just released a report on Florida's voucher programs. In layman's terms, it says:

"Gosh, maybe we should check to see whether this money is actually being used to send kids to school. Maybe you guys in the Department of Education should adopt even the most basic set of rules to protect the public's money, which you haven't done."

Considering that there are now active criminal investigations into whether people have been abusing these programs, that does not seem like such a bad idea.

Gallagher, by the way, is a Republican, too. It is said that he would like to be governor one day after Jeb Bush is finished with the job. So there are some grumblings over in the Legislature that his criticism is based in politics.

But if you read his report, you will see that it is based both in common sense and professional standards. It is not some liberal, radical idea that people should be held to account for what they do with the public's money.

You can read the report at this Web address:

Now, as a taxpayer, you might be saying, "This does not seem so controversial to me." After all, why wouldn't the state naturally want to keep track of the money?

But the answer is that in the Legislature, when you are doing God's work, audits are for wimps. Double-checking how the money is spent is a liberal idea. It is an attempt to bog down the genius of it all.

It is an attempt to shackle vouchers with the same bureaucracy that the public schools face. (This is a beautifully hypocritical claim, since it is the Legislature itself that has created and holds a death grip on that public-school bureaucracy).

So I am not holding my breath for the current regime to fix this. After receiving the report, the chairman of Bush's state Board of Education, Phil Handy, referred to the problems outlined by Gallagher as "hiccups."

Interestingly enough, it is the voucher community itself that might make the difference over time. That industry is growing in two directions. Most are legitimate, well-intended voucher programs and schools, which support a reasonable accountability. There is a small minority which either seeks profit, or which views even the most basic accounting as an ideological attack.

This debate is not about the merits of the voucher programs. I have visited a few voucher schools and am convinced that there are children being saved who would have been lost in the public schools. So supporting reasonable auditing and accounting requirements is not an attempt to hurt these children. If anything, it is an attempt to make sure that nobody else is stealing from them.

[Last modified December 19, 2003, 01:34:35]

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