Jeb's half-baked pie

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 1:45 a.m.
Voucher funding is enriching private academies at the expense of underfunded public schools Gov. Jeb Bush says that private school vouchers are as "American as apple-pie." But from the very beginning, Bush's apple-pie recipe for privatizing education reform was half-baked.
Start with the dubious notion that the way to "fix" public education is to take money away from poorly performing schools and give it to private academies in the form of "opportunity scholarship" vouchers. What happens to the students who must remain at chronically troubled, and chronically underfunded, schools? That's never been a concern for Bush.
Then there is the governor's double standard when it comes to measuring school performance. Under Bush's A-Plus plan, public schools are subjected to trial by test score. If a school's students perform well on the FCAT, it is rewarded financially. If a school's FCAT scores are below par, it is fiscally penalized.
So public schools are held accountable for the public dollars they receive. But what about the private schools that take state-funded vouchers? Do voucher students do better than public-school students? Nobody knows, and the state has shown virtually no interest in finding out.
Since it is an article of blind faith in Jeb Bush's Tallahassee that private schools are superior to public schools, no stringent measures of accountability are required. Indeed, oversight of private schools' use of voucher funding was so lax that Bush's Department of Education became embroiled in a series of scandals, as tax dollars were handed out indiscriminately to "schools" that, in some cases, turned out to be little more than scam operations.
The voucher scandals led lawmakers this year to push bills intended to hold voucher schools to higher standards of performance and accountability. The bad news is that the legislation died with the session. The good news is that the governor's latest attempt to dramatically expand voucher use in Florida also died.
Ultimately, it will be the Florida Supreme Court that will make the final call on vouchers. The state's constitution has a fairly explicit ban on taking money from the "public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution." Since many voucher schools are church-affiliated, two lower courts have already held Bush's voucher programs to be unconstitutional.
Perhaps Gov. Bush can read the handwriting on the wall. Once Florida's most vocal champion of vouchers as crucial to education reform, these days he downplays vouchers as "a small part of a broad strategy to create a climate for rising student achievement."
Even if the Florida Supreme Court were to, somehow, find vouchers are indeed constitutional, it appears that the Legislature is growing wary of the notion that the way to reform public education is to throw money at private schools. We predict that, ultimately, Florida's flirtation with private-school vouchers will be remembered as a half-baked vanity on the part of a governor who confused political platitude with good public policy.

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