March 2, 2023

Frank Cerabino: Once-subversive plot to dismantle traditional public schools in Florida now central policy

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Frank Cerabino, columnist for the Palm Beach Post, notes that Florida’s anti-public education folks are far less sneaky than they once were. 

Former Gov. Jeb Bush was one of the pioneers of privatizing public education. Like most bad ideas, it started out small.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was set up to fund private tuitions for just 730 former public-school students. But it didn’t get very far. The Florida Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2006.

“It diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida’s children,” the state’s high court wrote.

That should have been the end of it. But entrepreneurs, religious organizations and home-schoolers looking to tap into public education dollars found allies with Republican lawmakers eager to dismantle and starve public schools and their unions.

And so, Cerabino notes, they just kept at it.

The enemies of public education in Florida have had a long history of deceit.

To sidestep the 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling on vouchers, the state’s lawmakers engaged in a kind of money-laundering scheme with a company organized as a charity.

Cut off from using tax collections from the general fund to directly pay private schools, Florida lawmakers allowed corporations to pay their taxes as “donations” to a private company, Step Up for Students, which would then give “scholarships” (vouchers) to individual students for their private school tuition.

By passing the tax money through the company, which skimmed off 3 percent for administrative fees, the state’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program became the metaphorical camel’s nose under the tent.

Doug Tuthill, the founding head of Step Up for Students, couldn’t help bragging about what he had created in Florida when speaking in 2011 to a California symposium on the importance of faith-based schools in the school-choice movement.

“Because the Republican Party is fairly solid on our issue, most of the money we’re spending is in Democratic primaries,” Tuthill said. “I’d like to say that people do it because it’s the right thing to do but that $1 million every other cycle gets people’s attention.”

Tuthill said the goal in Florida was vouchers for all but his group had to make its pitch about helping poor kids.

There’s more in this fairly thorough telling of the tale of Florida’s attempt to dismantle public education. Read the full piece here. 

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