05 January 2006

Vouchers Out in Florida

In a spectacular decision for those of us who not only think, but know, that school vouchers are a terrible idea educationally and, ahem, unconstitutional to boot, The Florida Supreme Court struck down Gov. Jeb Bush's voucher program, which he considered a hallmark of his administration. Forgetting for a moment about allowing parents to use tax dollars to attend religious schools, i.e., the unconstitutionality of the whole idea, let's think about what a voucher program means for public schools.

If parents begin flooding private schools under the voucher program, those tax dollars do not go to the public school system in which the child would be enrolled. Therefore, the public school becomes even more underfunded, and more parents find a way to enroll their children elsewhere --- or worse, their child (or children) continue to attend the now-more-floundering public school. Yet somehow, Gov. Bush decries the Fl. Supreme Court's decision as
"a sad day for accountability in our state," Bush said. He said the voucher program had a positive effect because it "put pressure on school districts to focus on the underperforming schools."
How on earth would it be possible to remedy any of the issues surrounding the "underperforming schools" with less money coming in? The Governor is, by virtue of the voucher law, in fact absolving himself of accountability: Hey, they didn't have to go that school with the peeling paint, bullet holes and 47 kids to a room. They had vouchers. It's their fault they didn't choose Holy Jesus' Academy of Intelligent Design. After all, Gov. Bush actually said, "School choice is as American as apple pie in my opinion. ... The world is made richer and fuller and more vibrant when you have choices." Yet, as Chief Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in her opinion, the program "diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools." Public schools and private schools compete for students without the added advantage of vouchers. The parallel system exists without government intervention. If anything, the added tax revenue gives the private systems a leg up.

I'm not saying that merely throwing money at the problem is the answer, but as we've learned in just about every social program, less money is never an answer. Especially when it comes at the cost of the safety and education of our children. Though to hear Clark Neily, an attorney who argued the case for voucher advocates, tell the story, the underperforming nature of public schools is a fait accompli. He called the decision "a setback for those parents and children trapped in failing schools."

I'm leaving the Constitution out of this, hoping that The Good Doctor will take some time out of his hectic lawyer-like schedule to say it right, since I'd only mess it up.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum has some thoughts on this, including more on the foolish accountability notion floated by Gov. Bush.


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