Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently signed legislation that could radically undermine the state’s education system by making Florida’s already strong school voucher program the largest and most expensive in the country.
Starting in July, the state will make it possible for each Florida K-12 student to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher or savings account worth $8,648. And for the first time in Florida, the vouchers will be available to children from wealthy families, including those who are homeschooled or already attending private or religious schools. The money can go toward tuition and education expenses.
At least five other states have passed so-called universal choice programs (Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia), but Florida’s is by far the largest. Other Republican-led states are considering similar bills.
The new policy is a revolutionary (and expensive) expansion. The original state voucher program, which began in 1999, was designed exclusively for a small number of children in failing or F-rated public schools and, later, for students with special needs. The program grew to more than 177,000 students, from households with incomes up to $100,000.
But starting July 1, even the son of a private jet tycoon will be eligible to receive a coupon. As State Rep. Marie Woodson (D) put it: “This bill is an $8,000 gift card for millionaires and billionaires who receive a state-sponsored coupon for something they can already afford.” The rich may not need it, but who passes up free money?
The conservative rationale for removing income caps and barring students from private and religious schools seems to be rooted in a twisted sense of “justice for all.” In his view, those parents are paying what amounts to wasted tax for public schools their children don’t use, and giving them that money back to pay for the schools of their choice is fair.
But on another reading of the Tories’ goals, the voucher policy has nothing to do with fairness. Instead, it seeks to push for the expansion of private schools, especially those that offer a “values-based” Christian education, at the expense of supposedly amoral public schools. Ideology, not academics, seems to drive the most ardent conservative supporters of school choice, a well-funded national movement with powerful Republican political ties.
State House Speaker Paul Renner (R), who championed the Florida bill, said the same thing recently: “We don’t want your child to go to a school where their values are mocked.”
Why else would DeSantis, now vying for the GOP presidential nomination, and Republican lawmakers make this expensive proposition a priority? In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention last month, DeSantis was explicit: “If a father wants his child to receive a religious education, he now has the scholarship money to do it if he can’t afford it. . ”
How expensive is it exactly and where will the money come from? That’s not yet clear, because no one knows how many students, public or private, will apply for coupons. State House says $209.6 million in first year; the Senate suggested devoting $2.2 billion. The independent and liberal-leaning Florida Policy Institute, which studied the Arizona program, projects at least a staggering $4 billion in its first year.
I have never been opposed to small-scale vouchers. I empathize with parents’ frustrations over the performance of underfunded public schools. But the scale of the Florida program catapults the state into uncharted territory.
“The bigger the program, the worse the test scores,” Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University and a school-options analyst, told me.
One serious concern: The evidence in favor of coupon programs is not as strong as advocates claim. Similarly, the evidence against him is not as damning as critics claim. Coupons can provide educational benefits, but the earnings are often modest at best. Evidence points to steady drops in test scores, particularly in math, among coupon users in several states. Often, it depends on students enrolling in good schools, where space may be tight and fees out of reach. Unsurprisingly, students who use vouchers to attend substandard, often unaccredited schools with little oversight get nothing educational, or even regress, as a Brookings report found last fall.
Some 2,300 private schools in Florida accept vouchers; 69 percent of them are unaccredited, 58 percent are religious and 30 percent are for-profit, according to the Hechinger Report.
In a state infamous as a magnet for schemers and con artists, there is every reason to worry as millions of dollars in new spending will soon pour into schools that have little accountability. When DeSantis celebrated the passage of his coupon-for-all gambit as a school-choice victory, he was no doubt buoyed by those with no other ideology than to plunge into whatever trough was freshly filled with public money.