If public schools aren’t providing all they can to students, should taxpayer funding be redirected to private institutions? Are those institutions any more capable of dealing with troubled students? These questions lay at the core of a growing debate on the use of private school vouchers. As lawmakers in Tallahassee make noise about the possible expansion of vouchers in Florida, we independently asked a couple of Sarasota School Board members their thoughts on the program, presenting the simple question, How would expansion of vouchers impact children in Sarasota County classrooms?

In Opposition of Vouchers

Shirley Brown, Sarasota County School Board

Public schools are the bulldozers that level the field of opportunity for students in the U.S.” David Cullen, a Sarasota resident and former Florida PTA president, said that and I totally agree. Public schools in America are a melting pot where our students learn about children of other races, religions, background and economic status. Reformers are saying that private school vouchers are needed to help us compete in a new global economy. While I agree that we have some great private schools in Sarasota and there are several examples of certain programs in the U.S. that have shown some success, neither is the answer for improving outcomes for all students.  Private schools do not have to accept all students and can dismiss students that don’t follow their rules. And if we are honest, we have to admit that the reason some people put their kids in private school is so that they will not have to go school with “those” kids. Moving students from public schools to private schools can re-segregate schools and put many into secular schools, both of which run contrary to what we have come to expect from our public schools. Milton Friedman saw private schools as the way around Brown v. Board of Education, which called for desegregated schools and claimed the “the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system…” How? Vouchers.  

Accountability and transparency are words we are hearing a lot of lately. While public schools are being told what to teach at each grade level and are required to spend weeks out of every school year administering tests to our students, private schools that accept vouchers are not required to follow the state standards or administer the assessments. The fights over Common Core and state assessments may indeed be another part of the plan to move students from public schools into private schools.

Teacher pay in public schools is tied to these test results even if they never actually teach the subjects that are tested, but private school teachers don’t even have to be certified teachers. Some of these schools rely on workbooks and on-line courses to educate the students and it’s questionable if credits earned would transfer to another school in or out of state if the family decides to make a change. Parents can learn about a public school’s track record on the Florida Department of Education website and sites like GreatSchools.net but it’s much harder to learn about private schools, especially new ones that pop up to take advantage of the various voucher programs.

Taxpayers should be concerned about how their tax dollars are being spent and/or diverted through tax credit schemes with little accountability on how these dollars are spent or how well the schools perform. Step Up for Students, which administers the Corporate Scholarship Program, projects the program will increase to $500 million in by 2016-17 and to $1 billion by 2020 because they convinced legislators to put into law that the program will increase by 25 percent per year.  

Shirley Brownis a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and the incoming chairman of the Sarasota County School Board.


In Support of Vouchers

Bridget Ziegler, Sarasota County School Board

There is a cultural shift in education all around the country, when it comes to education.  People are recognizing that school choice can create opportunities that have never before existed.  Putting parents in the driver’s seat of their child’s education, regardless of zip code or income, is powerful and creates a formula for success. All too often, parents do not feel they know how to effectively advocate for their children’s education.  I have heard this sentiment from a number of families; interestingly enough, I often hear it from families who are at a lower socioeconomic level. I assure you this lack of “knowledge” does not come from lack of intelligence or a lack of involvement.  It stems from a culture of barriers and poor communication that is resistant to change. This kind of culture drives frustration and defeat, which weakens confidence and empowerment for many parents. 

The opportunities that the tax credit scholarship programs create break these barriers down.  It places the control  back into the family’s hands - which is where it should be-and restores confidence for many of these families.  Fortunately, we do not have any schools with “D” or “F” grades in Sarasota County.  That, however, does not mean we do not have any schools that are “failing” some students.  There are a variety of reasons that a student may not be suited for a public school - even top-ranked schools (which many of Sarasota County schools are considered to be in Florida).  In order for a student to thrive, the school must fit the student’s needs.

Whatever the cause that leads a family to seek out an alternative option from their traditional public school, I do not believe it is the Government’s place to tell that family otherwise.  However, prior to the creation of these tax credit scholarships, the majority of families who had the opportunity to seek out alternative options for their children’s education were middle and upper income families.  The continuation and expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program levels the playing field and provides valuable opportunities for families in our community.  If the end result is well educated, productive members of society, then it is a win for everyone. 

These programs also create another level of competition for public schools, which will inevitably force public schools to step up their game and respond to the needs of the customer (parents) and the consumer (students). 

Bridget Ziegler is a founding member of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which has lobbied for the expansion of vouchers.


Closing Arguments

Ziegler: All in all, I see these programs creating a powerful culture in education.  One in which turns the focus back to the unique needs of each student, and I will always support that. I urge you to reach out directly to a family that is participating in this program, as I did. Hear their story and learn what it meant to them and their child.  It puts things in perspective. One final note on this topic, as it relates specifically to Sarasota County. Last school year, there were approximately 550 students that participated in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program in Sarasota County.  That is about 1 percent of the current student population in Sarasota County Public Schools.  While I continue to support programs such as these, for the reasons stated above, I believe the level of “controversy” it has created is no where near proportionate to the amount of students it is impacting.  I personally would like to see us shift our energy and focus on some of the pressing issues such as what it will take to substantially close the achievement gap, which has a large impact on our district and community.


Brown: Andrew Carlson of the Cato Institute praised Florida’s “scholarship” program, saying that with the 25 percent growth number set in statute, the number of students using vouchers in Florida will soon hit 300,000. He goes on to say that this will be the “Tipping Point” at which parents of other private school parents will speak up and demand public dollars for all private school students. If taxpayers are complaining about how much it costs for public schools, how will they feel when they also have to pay for students in private and home school programs?  Go online to hear Mr. Carlson’s words as he introduces Doug Tuthill, the executive director of Step Up For Students, who says that passing voucher programs is Politics 101. Just give the program the face of poor minorities and students with disabilities and invest over $1 million in local politics to get legislators elected who will support your programs.  John Kirtley is the chairman for Children, which is one of the PAC that funneled these funds from/to/through other PAC to various legislative races. In 2014, they put this “Dark Money” into school board races to take out directors of the Florida School Boards Association in a successful effort to get members to drop out of the lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the Corporate Scholarship scheme. They also were involved in our 2014 school board races and I’m sure they’ll be involved in even more in the future. The primary purpose of our school board is to set policy for and pass a budget that allocates funds (primarily local tax dollars) for the operation of our public schools in a way that provides the best educational opportunities for our students.  Our school board needs to keep our focus on our students and ways we can improve the educational outcomes for them.