Our view: Welcome to the new middle class

They approved the death sentence for public education in Florida at 1:20 p.m. on a Tuesday. Then they cheered and hugged each other. The legislation approved by the Florida House and sent to the governor will steal $130 million in tax money that could be spent improving public schools next year and spend it on tuition vouchers at private schools. Never mind the Florida Constitution. Never mind the 2.8 million students left in under-funded, overwhelmed public schools.

The outcome of this year’s voucher debate in the decades-long dismantlement of traditional public education was never in doubt. It was sealed when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was narrowly elected governor in November and quickly appointed three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court. The overhaul of the court emboldened the Republican-led Legislature to approve the creation of vouchers that clearly are unconstitutional, confident that an expected legal challenge will be rejected. Elections have consequences, and this is a devastating one.

Don’t be fooled. This legislation is not just about helping children from the state’s poorest families attend private schools. It does more than take care of 13,000 kids who are on a waiting list for the existing voucher program that is paid for with tax credits. It raises the annual income limit for eligibility from $66,950 for a family of four for the current voucher program to $77,250 for the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.’’ That income limit will rise in future years, and so will the state’s investment in vouchers. Welcome to a new middle-class entitlement.

Florida cannot afford this free market fantasy. The state ranks near the bottom in spending per student and in average pay for teachers. Hillsborough County has hundreds of teacher vacancies, broken air-conditioning systems in dozens of schools will take years to repair, and voters just approved a half-cent sales tax to help make ends meet. Pinellas County would need $1,200 more per student in state funding just to cover inflation over the last decade. Yet Florida will send $130 million to private schools next year for tuition for 18,000 students.

Legislators who voted for SB7070 talked about empowering families and school choice. Parents in most communities already have plenty of choices. Nearly 300,000 students attend more than 600 publicly funded charter schools, and more than 225,000 students attend choice or magnet schools in their districts.

Voucher supporters also talked about the benefits of forcing school districts to compete with private schools for students, but it’s not a fair fight. Private schools aren’t bound by the same accountability standards and countless other requirements that public schools must meet. Private schools aren’t assigned letter grades by the state. Private schools aren’t required to accept every student who comes in the door, and they can much more easily move out kids who are low performers or disruptive in the classroom.

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Bush vs. Holmes that a similar voucher program that directly used tax dollars and was championed by Gov. Jeb Bush violated the state constitution. The court found that spending tax money on private school tuition vouchers violates the constitutional requirement for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education …” The court didn’t even get to another section of the state constitution that says no state revenue shall be spent “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination …’’ The state constitution hasn’t changed, yet Republicans brushed off repeated questions from Democrats about whether the vouchers approved are constitutional.

What has changed is the Florida Supreme Court is now solidly conservative, and Republicans are confident the court will ignore precedent and reach a different opinion than it did in 2006. The House’s 76-39 vote for SB7070, which followed a 23-17 vote in the Senate, was a foregone conclusion. State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the former House speaker who considered the teachers’ union the enemy, was in the chamber for the vote. So was Bush, the father of Florida’s school accountability system and the architect of diverting public money from public education to private schools.

For the voucher supporters who imagine a day when any family can take tax dollars and send their child to any private school, it is time to celebrate. For Florida teachers and countless families who still believe in the value of a quality public education system, there is no reason to cheer.

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