AP Photo/Marta Lavandier
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is waging a war against ‘woke’ public schools.
- Universal vouchers without restrictions on families’ incomes will create competition for students, he argues.
- The up to $4 billion program may eat into public school budgets.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared the Sunshine State is “where woke goes to die.” His latest target is public schools.
On Monday, the governor signed universal school vouchers into law, which both conservatives and liberals expect to hurt public schools.
The new law eliminates financial eligibility restrictions to participate in the state’s voucher program, which subsidizes the cost of families sending their children to private schools and other public school alternatives. All Florida K-12 students will now be eligible for vouchers projected to be $8,700 per student on average, according to the Miami Herald.
This comes after Desantis’ administration passed laws prohibiting discussion of critical race theory, sexual orientation, and gender identity in Florida’s public schools, resulting in the removal of thousands of books not approved by the state from school classrooms and the blocking of high schools from teaching AP African American studies. Universal school choice is the governor’s latest attempt to undermine Florida’s public schools.
Teachers and Democrats are worried the move could threaten public schools
The governor framed the law as a victory for parental rights and school choice, forcing public schools to compete with private schools for students.
“They either offer a product that parents want or they don’t,” DeSantis said, according to USA Today.
The president of the Florida Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, didn’t see it that way. While private schools are largely free to do what they want, public schools “must follow 1,300 pages of laws and a ton of regulations on top of that,” Andrew Spar told Insider. “This is not competition. This is an attempt to create a divide, to create an advantage.”
Public school enrollment has only dropped a few percentage points, from 89.6% to 87.2%, since Republican Gov. Jeb Bush rolled out the state’s voucher program two decades ago, which was aimed at helping more Florida families send their kids to private school.
Private schools “haven’t been able to profit the way they’ve wanted to off of these kids,” Spar said.
Now, however, DeSantis’ move to broaden the voucher program to all Florida families could meaningfully threaten funding for public schools.
“Florida public schools are woefully underfunded,” Spar said. According to the Education Data Initiative, Florida spends $9,983 per pupil in its public schools, spending less than 41 other states. The state receives $3.5 million each year — the third-largest amount of any state — from the federal government to help fund K-12 education.
Spar fears universal vouchers “will literally siphon money away” from public schools because it’s all under the same education budget. Estimated annual costs for the program range from $209 million to $4 billion. Meanwhile, the state senate appropriations committee has only proposed an additional $1.2 billion to cover the expansion of the already $1.3 billion program. If the cost exceeds that amount, “dollars are coming out of the public school budget,” Spar said.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic congresswoman representing Florida’s 25th district, tweeted the universal program will “hand our tax dollars to millionaires to subsidize their kids’ private school education, leaving our public schools and teachers to struggle even harder for basic funding.”
—Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@RepDWStweets) March 28, 2023
Republicans have been pushing to privatize public schools for 20 years, Spar said. And the culture-war fights are part of the same push.
“That’s why we are seeing all this book banning and limiting what you can teach because they have not been successful in driving parents out of public schools,” Spar said. “It’s about undermining the sacred trust between parents and teachers.”
Not everyone thinks defunding public schools is a bad thing. Noting what he called “the craziness that happens in our K-12 schools,” Florida’s Republican House Speaker Paul Renner praised the new law for enabling more parents to send children to schools that suit their religious and political preferences.
Conservative commentator Richard Hanania tweeted the law would “bankrupt the entire corrupt system” of public schools: “We’re watching the liberation of childhood.”
—Richard Hanania (@RichardHanania) March 28, 2023
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