Just as the winds were whooping up and the skies were closing in this afternoon, State Reps. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, held blustery court outside of Howard Middle School in an attempt to sway public opinion – if not Gov. Rick Scott's opinion – on the issue of school vouchers. As it often does, the conservative legislature decided to take a fairly innocuous bill designed to add a sense of uniformity and accountability to the education system, throw it into a "school choice" blender at the last minute and spit out a sliver of legislation clearly designed to handicap the public education system, teachers and students in equal measure. That bill, SB 850, was delivered to the governor's desk on June 13, and now awaits what is likely to be an illegible signature by Gov. Scott.
Castor Dentel highlighted a number of the bill's nefarious shortcomings, along with those of the existing voucher system of sending kids (and public money) to private schools unnecessarily that SB 850 seeks to expand. Already, the program is being misused, with kids from A- and B-schools being shoehorned into under-regulated private entities for the sake of keeping rich kids with rich kids (a subject that is currently a bone of contention within the community as the local school board considers resegregation). The new bill makes it even easier, raising the maximum family income to $60,000 a year for voucher eligibility.
"At a time when we have a record number of students in our public schools, as we struggle to keep class sizes low, and at a time when districts continue to cut back on art, music and PE, I cannot in good conscience support any more public school dollars being handed over to private entities," Castor Dentel, a teacher, said.
But it's more than the money, she said. It's the quality of education at some (not all) private or charter schools that is presenting a large possibility for damage for all involved. Sometimes kids are exploited and thrust into strip mall holding pens building forts out of pizza boxes, and sometimes parents are duped by egregious payouts for failing principals at charters. This is the new wild west of abusive enterprise.
Still, it grows. And it grows less and less accountable. While public school teachers face increased scrutiny and grading (and "teaching to the test"), voucher schools don't even require teachers to be certified, much less tested in their assigned subject. There is no real curriculum to speak of, no need for science beyond the Adam and Eve (NOT STEVE!) musings of zealots who take scripture literally. Yet, to the privates go the spoils. "Some will call that 'school choice,'" said Castor Dentel. "I call it legislative neglect."
"Instead of finding new ways to give even more of our tax dollars away to uaccountable private schools, we should be investing those resources into making our public schools stronger," she added, asking the governor to veto SB 850.
For Saunders, who helped to raise some accountability in terms of principal pay in charter schools (the failed Northstar School was in his district), the issue runs even deeper.
"I represent a district that has one of the highest densities of college students, and we just cut $40 million from the Bright Futures scholarship program," he says, adding that this bleeding from those being educated to the private interests of those who want to game the education system is systemic across the board. "We continue to make choices that are not in the best interest of students."
After spending three years creating new standards to hold public school teachers accountable, Saunders thinks it sends a bad message if the private schools are allowed to continue operating outside of the system. Moreover, the culture of the private school machine doesn't allot for basic anti-discrimination standards, anti-bullying measures or any sensitivity to the needs of students. It doesn't make any sense, if you think about it. You're not supposed to think about it.
"[Rick] Scott's a fucking crook," somebody on a bicycle shouted as he drove by.
"Yeah," everyone thought in unison.