The Florida Legislature officially adjourned for the year on Sunday, after working through the weekend. Unfortunately, it wasn’t before they adopted, and the governor signed, House Bill 7055, which created a new and expanded an existing private school voucher program. It also promotes religion in public schools by requiring that public schools post “In God We Trust” signs.
HB 7055 was a must-pass education funding bill. Advocates for school vouchers used this to their advantage and inserted provisions into the bill to create new and expand existing voucher programs.
Florida already has several voucher programs that don’t work. It doesn’t need more. Studies show vouchers don’t improve student achievement and lack accountability. They also harm religious freedom because they funnel public funds primarily to private religious schools. Public money should fund public schools.
HB 7055 includes the “Hope Scholarship,” a voucher program for students who have been “bullied, harassed, or hazed.” This program will strip bullied students of important federal and state protections. For example, public schools must adhere to the Jeffrey Johnson Act, which requires that they have anti-bullying protections in place, and federal civil rights laws require that public schools prevent discrimination. Private schools that accept vouchers do not have to adhere to these laws. The bill simply forces bullied students out of the public schools system and into schools with fewer protections, letting the bully, who faces no consequences and stays in his school, win. And we aren’t the only ones to recognize these problems. One parent called the bill “utterly ridiculous,” and Teaching Tolerance, an anti-bias organization, said it “harms rather than helps children.”
Second, the bill expands the funding sources for two existing voucher programs, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Gardiner Scholarship. Now, a tax credit on commercial rental property taxes will divert up to $57.5 million away from the general revenue fund into private school vouchers. That’s on top of the estimated $40 million that the Hope Scholarship will cost in just the first year.
In addition, the bill requires that the words “In God We Trust” be displayed in a conspicuous place in every public school. This is another bad idea. Florida’s families and students practice a variety of religions and faiths – and it’s important that our public schools respect and welcome everyone. But bills like this do the exact opposite and can make students with different or no religious beliefs feel like an outsider. This violates religious freedom, which mandates that parents and families, not public schools, get to decide how their kids learn about faith.
We urged Gov. Rick Scott (R) to veto HB 7055. We explained that vouchers just don’t work – they don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, and deprive students of rights provided to public school students. And that current voucher programs in Florida prove that students are performing worse in math and reading in many voucher schools and that less than 30 percent of schools are accredited.
Unfortunately, Scott didn’t heed our warnings and signed the bill yesterday. It’s a shame that this happened at the start of Public Schools Week – a time to celebrate our public schools, not drain their funding. But we will keep telling Florida, and legislators across the country, that we should support public schools – not harm them.