The life of Florida public education now hangs in the balance, thanks to the relentless march of Governor Ron DeSantis and his far right legislature, who are attempting to drastically privatize the state’s greatest public asset.
Florida leads the way, ahead of other states like Arizona, in how to “choice” parents out of public education and into private school voucher programs.
In what state Senator Perry Thurston calls a “death knell,” the 2021 Florida House and Senate are fast-tracking the passage of SB 48. This bill will convert the state’s five vouchers into two Education Savings Account/Debit Cards paid, for the first time, with public school tax dollars and a spending flexibility so wide that parents are not even required to pay for teachers or tuition.
Vouchers provide parents with public money to pay for private, often religious schools, with little accountability or guarantee of quality, in eighteen states. Florida leads the way, ahead of other states like Arizona, in how to “choice” parents out of public education and into private school voucher programs. Today, Florida operates two Exceptional Student Education vouchers, the McKay and Gardiner, plus the Corporate Tax Credit, Hope and Family Empowerment, for a total of five vouchers. The goal has always been to significantly expand the base of students giving up their right to a free public education in exchange for granting parents the freedom to spend their child’s money as they see fit.
To accelerate the growth of vouchers, Florida seeks to convert all five programs into Education Savings Account/Debit Cards, funded directly by state general revenues. This money will not be spent on public schools. Instead, “parents can use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, home education, curriculum, therapy, postsecondary educational institutions in Florida and other defined educational services.
The bill, modeled after legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, represents the unfinished business of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman, and a host of rightwing philanthropists from the Waltons to the Kochs.
The two Florida debit cards are separate and distinct, yet both have the same goal in mind—to poach and dismantle public schools.
The McKay-Gardiner voucher/debit card combines two programs serving the Exceptional Student Education population into one, with a value of at least $10,000 dollars each. While most public education advocates recognize the need for these programs, there is considerable concern over the future spending oversight since debit cards allow parents greater spending choices.
By including the McKay-Gardiner voucher in SB 48, the bill’s sponsors hope to ensure passage of the very worst parts of the bill, knowing parents will strenuously object to even the tiniest threat to the proposed McKay-Gardiner voucher/debit card.
But the biggest money grab is Florida’s Family Empowerment Education Savings Account/Debit Card (FES-ESA), which rolls the Corporate Tax Credit voucher and the Hope voucher into the Family Empowerment Scholarship voucher, already worth a combined billion dollars in annual lost funding to public schools.
Homeschoolers will also be eligible for this new voucher debit card. And funding for this mega voucher will now come from the same property taxes and school district-levied revenues that pay for Florida K-12 public schools. Overall, this is an enormous net loss to public school students and districts.
With this bill, Florida unwinds every single component of public education and, in turn, dumps these pieces onto the market table “empowering” parents to somehow use the purchasing power of a debit card to craft a better “choice” for their children.
The FES-ESA Debit Card is not just for tuition, it can be used to pay for any component of “education” a parent deems necessary, from a smart phone to Ancestry.com to the services of an unaccredited teacher of any subject. There can be no doubt that education vendors are drooling at this prospect.
With this bill, Florida unwinds every single component of public education and, in turn, dumps these pieces onto the market table.
This program will be disastrous for most families. Not all students require funding equal to the standard FES-ESA Debit Card amount of approximately $7,592, or 97.5 percent of the full-time equivalent spending per student.
Some students require less and some students with greater needs require more. Some students with no extra needs, for example, might need only $4,000 in funding to satisfy their educational requirements. When that parent takes a voucher for $7,592, or $3,592 more than their child generates, it means that another public school student with higher needs, who might generate $12,000, will suffer a significant loss in funding.
Likewise, parents who take the $7,592 FES-ESA Debit Card probably have no clue that their child requires funding more in the range of $11,000 from their public school, where students have access to a myriad of additional services and supports, such as nurses, counselors, therapists, and social workers. How will these parents be able to replicate their public school’s services on the “E-Commerce” marketplace with such reduced funds?
What’s even worse, parents who accept the FES-ESA Debit Card give up their child’s right to attend a public school.
Politicians dismiss concerns about these debit card programs, saying this is a way to “simplify” the process. In truth, combining these vouchers and converting them to Education Savings Accounts opens up a portal for hollowing out public education budgets and transferring public money into private hands.
School “choice” advocates often use the word “customization” to sell the concept of education savings accounts, saying they “empower” parents to purchase education-related products and vendor programs separately, instead of having their needs met by a single school.
This taps into the U.S. obsession to customize everything from cars to food, but in this case, it’s cloaking the destruction of public schools by promising parents that they can get everything they want through the free market.
When Skylar Zander, Florida director of Americans for Prosperity, one of the proponents of SB 48, says, “this bill takes us closer to giving every Florida student the tools and resources they need to unleash their potential,” he is speaking about a narrow privileged few who can afford to cover the shortfall when the debit card isn’t enough.
The legislation’s call for means-testing voucher participation is really an illusion, as SB 48 expands 2021-2022 eligibility to 300 percent of the Federal poverty level, or $79,500 per family of four, which far exceeds Florida’s median household income of $55,483 per year. Eligibility escalates each year by 25 percent, so next year, the eligibility will increase to 375 percent, which hovers around $100,000 for a family of four.
SB 48 also raises the bar to allow 230,000 students into the program at a time when Governor DeSantis is warning public school districts, and Florida’s three million students, to expect billions in budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another problem posed by Florida’s shift to a debit card program is the massive potential for inequity. Private schools, education service companies, and product vendors reserve the right to raise their tuition, discriminate, and teach whatever they want as long as consumers buy.
Florida has over a thousand pages of state statutes that hold school districts to strict accountability in using high-stakes tests to rank, sort, and shame teachers, students, and schools. Yet the state is largely silent on the lack of accountability imposed on private, mostly religious, schools who are the greatest recipients of vouchers.
It is no exaggeration to say Florida’s SB 48 and the conversion to education savings accounts is likely the greatest threat to the state’s public education system that most of us will ever see in our lifetimes.
As the National Education Policy Center concluded in a recent report, “Evidence from the United States and abroad suggests that parental choice policies, such as ESAs, result in increased social, economic, and racial stratification. This poses a fundamental equity issue for the provision of universal education in a democratic society.”
DeSantis and the Florida legislature cannot have it both ways. They can’t claim to be concerned about zip codes keeping poor students “stuck” in schools while pushing publicly funded education savings accounts designed to allow rich parents to pay an extra $20,000 per year for an exclusive prep school when lower-income parents cannot.
It is no exaggeration to say Florida’s SB 48 and the conversion to education savings accounts is likely the greatest threat to the state’s public education system that most of us will ever see in our lifetimes—hollowing out a treasured public asset to shift massive public funds into unaccountable profit-hungry private hands.