Florida Tightens The Public Education Noose

I have run out of words for Florida. It's been a little more than a year since I dubbed them "the worst," and there really isn't anything to add to that, except of course there is. The leadership positions under Governor Ron DeSantis have been handed over to profiteers and people whose whole life story is anti-education, plus a very active astro-turfy group of folks determined to cheer the legislature on. Charter and voucher programs are largely unregulated, and Florida taxpayers get to foot the bill for schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ students (or anyone else they feel like discriminating against).

Per a 2018 report from the DeVosian group American Federation for Children, Florida is where over a third of the voucher dollars in the US are spent-- and in 2019 they launched yet another voucher program. This year AFC gives 3 out of Florida's 5 voucher programs the top ranking in their category.

This frickin' guy.
But none of that is enough for DeSantis, who is intent on just tightening the noose around public education's neck (and gaslighting taxpayers while he's at it by continuing to claim that charter schools are public schools).

"But wait--" I hear you say. "Didn't the governor just raise the base salary for teachers in Florida?" Isn't that a good thing? Certainly better than the Best and the Brightest program that gave bonuses based on teachers' high school SAT scores?

Well, sort of.

The new $47,500 base starting salary is called "aspirational." So don't count on it just yet. As laid out in HB 641, each district will get a pile of money, and they have to somehow apportion that to raise their base salary, while at the same time, nobody anywhere else on the salary schedule can make less than the base salary. So this may attract young new teachers, but it isn't going to do near as much for teachers who are already there (and it does nothing at all for substitutes). It's cool to start out at $47,500; it's less cool to be making $47,550 after ten years on the job.

One wonders what effect this will have on contract negotiations in districts down the line. But I suspect that the important language in the bill is right here:

Each school district shall provide each charter school within its district its proportionate share calculated pursuant to s. 1002.33(17)(b)

Yep. The $47,500 is an aspiration for charters as well. With this bill, the state helps charter schools compete for teaching staff, helping them play financial catch-up with public schools. Pretty on brand for a state that decreed that taxpayers who raised taxes for improvements in their public schools must give some of that revenue to charter schools.

Meanwhile, DeSantis also just signed HB 7067, which takes us back to last year's new voucher program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program. It's pretty much a recap of a voucher bill that Jeb Bush tried to enact back in his day, but which was kiboshed by the courts (that whole tax dollars spent on private religious institutions thing). DeSantis, rather than tweaking the program, tweaked the court instead and expected them to back him up. Even so, FES arrived with some limitations-- only families with up to 300% of the poverty level qualified (that's about $75 K for a family of four, and once in the program, you can never be booted out, and siblings are auto-matically in) and the scholarships were capped at 18,000. The program is an education scholarship tax credit program, so it's also a tax shelter for the wealthy.

HB 7067 is a rewrite of FES, joyously welcomed by choice fans as "the largest expansive private school choice bill ever passed in US history." Now the program has no real cap, but will add 28,000 more scholarships every year. And after any year in which more than 5% of the scholarships go unclaimed, the state can just raise the income requirement. In other words, it's not about saving the poor(-ish) kids so much as its getting the maximum number of vouchers in play. Because if they up the number of vouchers each year by 28,800, that income requirement is going to become meaningless pretty quickly. The only will limit will be the amount of money that rich people and wealthy corporations want to pour into it. Meanwhile every pile of money they put into the program will be a pile of money that the state doesn't collect, a hole that they will have to fill somehow.

Florida remains a reminder that no matter how bad something is, there's always a way to make it worse. With this action, Florida moves closer to a privatized system with privatized funding, leaving the public system to pick up whatever scraps they're left to struggle with. That will matter a great deal to the students who are denied any sort of choice, because the other thing you get with a faux choice system like this is a whole lot of Other Peoples' Children who are denied access to the well-funded schools and left to languish in struggling public schools.

I can imagine ways that Florida could make this worse, but I don't want to write them down and give anyone ideas. But for the rest of, it's important to remember that for folks like Betsy DeVos and Job Bush, this dismantling and privatizing of public education is the ideal, the model that all states should aspire to.