THE POLITICS OF EDUCATION PROVED STRANGE AND UNPREDICTABLE in 2014. Issues like Common Core shifted the political landscape and made strange bedfellows of politicians across the political spectrum in races around the country, and locally, area School Board races took the center stage as other blowout races faded to the background. But among the biggest surprises in the Sarasota County School Board race was the rise of vouchers, a topic largely untouched in this decade, as a key issue, and with the election of a pro-voucher School Board member, at a time when the Florida School Board Association (FSBA) and the Florida Education Association (FEA) are suing to stop an expansion of a school choice initiative in the state.

“What’s great about these programs, especially for lower-income families, is that it gives them a choice,” says newly-elected School Board Member Bridget Ziegler of vouchers. “It’s incredibly important for parents to remain in control and in charge of decisions.” Ziegler ran for office in support of “restricted vouchers,”and says the public school system should not dictate where state dollars go to educate a child parents feel would be best served with education in a private school.

That’s a position that rankles most of Ziegler’s peers on the Sarasota County School Board, which has supported the FSBA lawsuit. And after the pro-voucher political group Florida Federation for Children jumped into the election to help Ziegler win a narrow contest here, many worry whether this will be a defining issue in coming election cycles.

Early in 2014, it seemed the major issue of any education race would be Common Core, a set of national standards being phased in at schools in Florida and across the nation. The matter has become controversial in the last year, and in fact was the defining subject for two Sarasota School Board races decided in August, where incumbents Shirley Brown and Jane Goodwin easily fended off challenges from anti-Common Core opponents.

Ziegler’s race played out a little differently. She had also questioned the Common Core standards, but declined to make that issue the central one in her campaign. Plenty of other topics were playing out in the District 1 contest anyhow. After School Board Member Carol Todd resigned last year for personal reasons, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Ziegler, wife to a Republican Party of Florida state committeeman and she had to fend off accusations of favoritism. Her chief opponent, Ken Marsh, just retired as a long-time school district administrator and boasted strong institutional support, eventually drawing three incumbent School Board members to support his candidacy. No candidate won a majority of votes in the four-person contest in August, but Marsh won more votes than Ziegler in August.

But in the early months of the race, vouchers rarely came up as an issue. It wasn't until a shift in state politics came along that the topic of school choice once again leaped into the political lexicon.

The education organizations in August filed suit against the state regarding vouchers, calling the program unconstitutional largely because it siphons money toward religious schools throughout the state. Right now, vouchers go to roughly 67,800 students in Florida to help pay for private school tuition.

Voucher programs have been in effect in Florida at some level since 2002, when Gov. Jeb Bush’s A-Plus school accountability plan was being put into effect. The suit comes now, though, in large part because of expansions approved by the Florida Legislature last year that allow for increases each year in the amount of money spent on vouchers. While there was previously a $118-million cap on funding that could be directed to private schools, a new law allows a 25 percent increase each year in that total. That means by the 2018-2019 fiscal year, close to a billion dollars could be redirected toward private schools in Florida. The new law also allows for an increase in the amount of per student funding for the vouchers.

The Florida Education Association, the teachers’ union for the state, has firmly argued against vouchers for diverting public school resources away from public schools at a time when money for schools is strained. “Vouchers undermine accountability for public funds,” according to the FEA website. “Private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate: who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how—if at all—they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and to the public.”

And the union pushes back against the notion students perform any better in private schools than public ones. Of course, voucher advocates see different results. Step Up for Children, the organization at the center of this lawsuit that administers vouchers around the state, said the program is unfairly under attack. The program has seen enrollment grow from 10,549 students in the 2004-05 school year to 68,761 this school year, and the majority of the students being served are minorities and poor families.

While state statute come 2016 will allow vouchers to go to families making as much as $62,010, the average household income for participating families according to Step Up is $24,067. Of students being served, 30 percent are black and 38 percent are Hispanic, and all of the students receiving vouchers must take state-approved assessment tests, the same as those enrolled in public schools. Most importantly, Step Up notes the program is funded from private tax-credited corporate contributions.

Any corporation making such a contribution gets 100 percent of the value of the donation credited to taxes, as opposed to a simple deduction, so the money does cut down on what goes into state coffers. Right now, a household of four can make no more than $44,122 to recieve a voucher; the limit is based on whether a household income exceeds 185 percent of the state-recognized poverty level, and that percentage in 2016 will jump to 260 percent.

When the lawsuit was filed, vouchers became a political issue to contend with in the Sarasota contest. The Republican Party of Sarasota put the issue into its local platform and Ziegler started to see support roll in from around the state based on her pro-voucher position. Ziegler says she met with the Florida Federation for Children and spoke with families who received scholarships to private schools through the program. The introduction of outside funding angered the local teachers union, which was strongly backing Marsh. But come Nov. 4, Ziegler was elected to a four-year term with 69,881 votes to Marsh’s 67,488 votes, a difference of less than 2 percent of votes cast.

The news was discouraging to School Board Member Brown, who had supported Marsh since his entry to the race, but also because of the potential implications regarding vouchers. Brown fears that the Florida Legislature this year could expand vouchers even further, and worries money in a sales tax trust will be turned toward allowing for state funding into private schools. “Most of these voucher dollars, between 75 and 80 percent each year, go to religious schools and schools that don’t live by the same rules a public school does. From a public policy view, this takes money away from our schools, and I do think we have got something in our state constitution about funding.”

The first time the issue will be hashedout in the School Board chamber will likely be when members set a legislative agenda in advance of this year’s legislative session. At that point, it seems unlikely the board will change its stance on the matter, but Brown wonders if more money will flow into future School Board contests. Sarasota School Board Member Caroline Zucker is now president of the FSBA, for example, and might be a target in 2016.

Ziegler remains a firm supporter of vouchers, and her rhetoric indicates she likely won’t oppose an expansion of the program. “We have a lot of incredibly successful private schools,” Ziegler says. “If a parent chooses to send a child to one of these schools because it has a strong curriculum, I do not believe we have the right to tell them otherwise.”Critics note, of course, that nobody is stopping students from sending children to private schools, but certainly disagreement exists on whether funding from the state should follow them.

And Brown, while offering high praise to some private institutions, questioned whether all the schools were such a good choice. She said many parents can be drawn in to a promise of a special program but end up at a school that offers an education of far less value than what's found in the public schools.

Ziegler stressed vouchers should have restrictions. “I believe the money should follow the child but we need to be very careful about restrictions,”she says. And while caps on income may be increasing at the state level, Ziegler stressed her support is for a voucher program that focuses on low-income household without the means to cover private school tuition on their own.

Regardless, the words “school choice” have awoken again within the public dialogue in the state of Florida. Whether voucher backers or unions spend more in coming cycles remains to be seen, as does the question of where money will be spent. The decision on voucher policy ultimately, after all, remains a decision of the Florida Legislature. But the matter is sure to cause sparks in school board debates in Southwest Florida and beyond. SRQ