By Ray Seaman
When I first heard of Governor-Elect Rick Scott’s plans to dismantle Florida’s public education system and turn it into a giant private voucher experiment, I was like most folks, both angry and worried. If you’re unfamiliar with Scott’s plan, here it is:
Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he’s working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.
He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an “education savings account.”
But whatever it’s called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it — or arguably any state — has ever considered.
Scott’s plan has already received an outpouring of opposition. I haven’t heard much support at all for such a plan excluding the usual suspects like Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) and other public school haters. Perhaps the most surprising reaction however came from big time voucher hucksters themselves. Andrew Coulson, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said Scott’s proposal goes too far:
But what if the ESA [Education Savings Accounts] has no serious hope of passing muster with the state Supreme Court, and in the process of being struck down would jeopardize successful existing programs? Sadly, that appears to be the most likely outcome.
In light of the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 Bush v. Holmes ruling, in which it struck down the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] voucher program, there does not seem to be any way for the Court could uphold any sort of voucher program in Florida even if it wanted to (see below)—and there’s no reason to think it wants to. In fact, it seems likely that a lower court would grant an injunction against any voucher program even being implemented in Florida, pending the outcome of the inevitable lawsuit.
The result of simultaneously passing the ESA program and abolishing the corporate income tax would thus be to gut Florida’s existing, successful, popular, money-saving scholarship donation tax credit program without providing a viable alternative. That would decimate school choice in Florida. Furthermore, an additional anti-voucher ruling by the Court might expand on its earlier Bush v. Holmes ruling, thereby jeopardizing the McKay voucher program for special needs children that is also successful, popular, and far more efficient than the public school system.
Leave aside for a moment the fact there doesn’t seem to be any substantial evidence showing Florida’s existing voucher program actually outperforms our public schools. However, Coulson is likely correct about the legal implications for passing a universal private voucher program into law. The St. Petersburg Times editorial board discussed this when they knocked Scott’s plans:
The Florida Supreme Court struck down the Bush-inspired Opportunity Scholarships, which were tuition vouchers to be given to students in failing public schools. The 2006 court opinion found those vouchers violated a constitutional requirement for a “uniform system of free public schools.” The high court was silent on another constitutional provision that bars state money from going to religious institutions, which a lower appellate court cited. Two existing voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit voucher for students from low-income families and the McKay Scholarship voucher for disabled students, are similarly flawed but have yet to be legally tested.
I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the Florida constitution, but it seems that based on the evidence, if Scott and the far right really wanted a universal voucher program, they would have to pass a constitutional amendment of some kind to neuter or muddy up the “uniform system of free public schools” language in the constitution. I highly doubt Florida voters would pass such an amendment with more than 60% of the vote. I would be surprised if such an idea even received a majority of the vote. Keep in mind, 62% of voters in Utah (yes, Utah) defeated a statewide ballot proposal creating a universal voucher program in 2007.
So what’s this all about then, anyway if Scott’s universal voucher plan is a legal absurdity? The only thing I can think of is the tried and true tactic of the right, which is moving the public discourse to more favorable conservative ground. This is what’s called “Moving the Overton window.” Basically, by pushing such an extreme proposal, even if it’s defeated, it becomes less crazy the next time around, and in the meantime it allows you to successfully push through less extreme, but still radical ideas into the mainstream.
So Scott’s push for universal vouchers may just make things like basing half of a teacher’s pay on a student’s test scores a more palatable idea. Keep in mind, such a proposal in the form of Senate Bill 6 caused a firestorm of opposition earlier this year, leading to its demise at the hands of Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto pen. Now, in the context of Rick Scott’s very crazy plan to essentially dismantle their schools, at least some teachers are reportedly warming up to the idea of a less destructive form of SB 6. Never mind the fact that the only major controlled study on merit pay demonstrates that it doesn’t work at all. Yet we’re still tinkering with the idea like it’s something we have to have to make public schools better. Witness the moving of the Overton window.
So while public education supporters and advocates should certainly target Scott’s universal voucher plan for defeat, they shouldn’t forget about all the other fires the legislature has burning out there. If anything, Scott’s radical plans could just be a giant distraction to get a lot of other horrible anti-public school legislation passed.