January 3, 2023

Sue Kingery Woltanski: Looking Ahead to 2023 and the Danger of Universal ESAs in Florida

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Sue Kingery Woltanski keeps an eye on the ever-spinning education shenanigans in Florida. In this post, she looks toward the new year and the possible initiatives we may be seeing.

There will be a broad assortment of actions aimed at furthering the culture wars and the Presidential aspirations of Ron DeSantis, but Woltanski warns that these may distract from important education news.

While all this is happening, Floridians will barely notice the expansion to Universal Vouchers and their transformation to Education Savings Accounts or ESAs. The transformation to ESAs will likely move through committees as though they are merely, once again, expanding access to tuition vouchers, but ESAs are NOT tuition vouchers. ESAs, like the former Gardiner Program for children with special needs (now known as the FES-UA), provide a student with the equivalent of a publicly funded edu-debit card, which can be spent on an array of education services, including (but not restricted to) private school tuition. This is the privatizer’s end game – the dismantling and unbundling of public schools and, ultimately, the transfer of the responsibility of educating children from the community to the individual alone. When the community no longer feels responsible for providing education to other people’s children, the real defunding and dismantling can begin.

Despite the well documented poor performance of children in voucher programs across the country, where it has been repeatedly shown that voucher participation leads to more “learning loss” than the Covid pandemic did, so-called reformers continue to move forward. Why? Because the goal has never been improving education for all students but rather privatizing and dismantling the public school system all together. ESAs are a significant step in that direction.

Woltanski points out that ESAs have been pushed for years in Florida, slowly eating up chunks of education spending. 

Like most of Florida’s other vouchers, in order to qualify for an ESAs, the student must un-enroll from public school. With ESAs, however, private school attendance is optional. Families can purchase educational products and services from an e-commerce website run by Step Up For Students, a politically connected non-profit which manages the majority of Florida’s voucher programs, who has no obligation to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Since SUFS is a private company, there is little to no fiscal transparency.  There are no academic standards or curricular requirements. The state provides no academic oversight. While we (personally) know many current ESA recipients who do spend their funds for they special needs children wisely, the system is out of the sunshine and ripe for waste, fraud and abuse. Current Florida’s ESA recipients (former Gardiner recipients) complain that the current system needs a complete overhaul. Current recipients find it easier to purchase gaming consoles (Nintendo and PS-5s), swing sets and Legos from the e-commerce site than obtain the specialized therapies their children need.  When members of the SUFS Parent Advisory Council complained to the Legislature, SUFS disbanded the council. Imagine, for a moment, how well the e-commerce site will work when ALL of Florida’s children have access to it.

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